Behind rising air travel complaints: mergers and ever-shrinking seats

Customer satisfaction tends to drop when airline mergers are under way, say researchers who released the Airline Quality Rating for 2012 on Monday. Squeezing more passengers onto each plane does, too. 

George Frey/Reuters/File
A Delta Airlines Airbus A320 passenger jet taxis at the Salt Lake City international airport, in Salt Lake City, Utah, in Nov. 2012. Delta will take delivery on new Microsoft Surface Pro tablets for their aircraft fleet.

Complaints from airline passengers in the US increased in 2012, as higher demand meant more travelers were being squeezed onto flights, an annual airline rating report found.

The 14 largest US airlines did improve their on-time performance and lost less baggage, according to the annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR) report released Monday. Nonetheless, customer complaints rose 20 percent, from 1.2 per 100,000 passengers in 2011 to 1.4 per 100,000 passengers in 2012. The number of involuntary denied boardings was also higher in 2012, the report said.

Among the reasons for the jump in the complaint rate: airline mergers and the hiccups in schedules and customer service that often come with them, say the report's authors. Since the early 2000s, the industry has been in an era of consolidation, said one of them, Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University in Kansas. The researchers have noticed negative trends in customer satisfaction when airlines merge.

“Past AQR data suggests that the combining of two large air carrier operations often results in subsequent decreases in AQR rankings,” said Brent Bowen, report co-author and head of the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University in Indiana, in a statement.

Mr. Headley adds: “When you look at the past 13 years, you find that the airline industry performs most efficiently when the system isn't stressed by high passenger volume and high number of airplanes in the air. Every time there are more planes in the sky and more people flying, airline performance suffers."

It’s no surprise that performance is suffering, Headley told the Associated Press, especially as airlines shrink the sizes of seats and bathrooms to fit more people on board each plane.

"The way airlines have taken 130-seat airplanes and expanded them to 150 seats to squeeze out more revenue, I think, is finally catching up with them," he said. "People are saying, 'Look, I don't fit here. Do something about this.' At some point airlines can't keep shrinking seats to put more people into the same tube."

The AQR rating is derived from monthly data airlines provide to the US Department of Transportation (DOT). The researchers assign values to four criteria – on-time performance, involuntary denied boardings, mishandled bags, and customer complaints – and rank the 14 largest airlines accordingly.

But the ranking does not capture the entirety of customer dissatisfaction, say other industry experts.

“The air transportation experience is suffering from issues that are not measured in the DOT or AQR,” Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, told NBC News. Mr. Leocha said these other issues include higher fees to check luggage, opaque code-share rules, and policies that make families pay extra to sit together.  

Despite greater passenger frustration, the overall 2012 rating for the airline industry was not too different than in 2011, and both years rank among the industry's best in the report’s 23-year history. This year, Virgin America Airlines earned the No. 1 spot in terms of lowest rate of complaints – its first year being included in the report. Here is a list of the full rankings:

  1. Virgin America 
  2. JetBlue 
  3. AirTran
  4. Delta 
  5. Hawaiian 
  6. Alaska 
  7. Frontier 
  8. Southwest 
  9. US Airways 
  10. American 
  11. American Eagle
  12. SkyWest
  13. ExpressJet 
  14. United

Headley said the airline industry is nearing the end of its merging era because there aren’t many more airlines left to merge. Future AQR reports will show if airlines can adapt to boost customer satisfaction.

“We will be carefully watching to see if two highly rated carriers, such as former No. 1 AirTran and Southwest, will reverse this trend,” said Purdue's Mr. Bowen in a statement. Researchers will also closely watch how the American Airlines and US Airways merger will navigate the turbulence of customer complaints.

“When airlines combine, more chains get yanked for reasons that passengers find reasonable to complain about,” Headley told NBC News. “The sad part is that when I get back from a trip and people ask me how my flight was, the best I can say is it was uneventful.”

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