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Airline complaints soared 1,500% in April as flyers vented about refunds

June 26, 2020
4 min read
United and Southwest Planes
Airline complaints soared 1,500% in April as flyers vented about refunds
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April was a rough month to be an airline.

In addition to plummeting demand from travelers and severely constrained finances, consumer complaints reached what may have been a new record high.

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Passengers filed 19,856 complaints about airline service in April, according to data released by the Department of Transportation on Friday. That's up from 5,064 in March and from 1,206 in April 2019 — a whopping 1,546% year-over-year increase.

In a press release announcing April's aviation statistics, the DOT said that 17,387 of the service-related complaints that month had to do with refunds.

Related: How far can airborne COVID germs really spread on a plane?

That refunds drove most of the complaints is little surprise. Some airlines initially resisted efforts to give refunds for canceled flights, pushing travelers to accept vouchers instead as they tried to conserve cash while demand for travel bottomed out in April. Many passengers began to complain, and the DOT eventually issued a public rebuke to carriers with a sternly worded reminder that refunds were required by law when an airline cancels a flight.

The DOT had already recorded a spike in refund complaints in March, even though carriers operated close to normally through the first half of the month. The report released Friday that includes April's numbers is the first to capture an entire month's effect of the pandemic on U.S. airline operations.

Related: Delta likely to pull flights as number of US coronavirus cases rises.

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Among the nuggets: It's remarkable to note that the deluge of complaints — up by more than 18,000 from the prior year — came even as the number of travelers was down as much as 96% compared to April 2019, based on Transportation Security Administration screening data.

April saw demand for travel fall precipitously, with airlines quickly slashing service as passenger levels suddenly dropped to historically low numbers.

Related: United Airlines joins American in signaling that the summer may not be lost.

The April shakeup also led to an odd reshuffling of the aviation industry landscape, temporarily crowning Southwest the world's largest airline by seat count. In April, the DOT fielded 521 refund-related complaints against Southwest, which wasn't bad for the world's largest airline.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, was United. The carrier lodged more than 2,700 refund-related complaints in April alone. The carrier was among those that made receiving refunds difficult, and that appears to borne out in the DOT complaint numbers for the month.

American, which generally has had one of the industry's most generous refund policies, fielded the second-most refund complaints in April with 1,173. Frontier (850), Delta (732) and Southwest rounded out the top five for refund complaints in April.

April also saw airlines implement new onboard public health measures, with many carriers announcing mask-wearing requirements that month. There still isn't a federal policy requiring masks while traveling, but most airlines now have such a rule in place.

Travel experience: What it’s like to fly a low-cost airline during a pandemic.

The DOT has since issued more warnings to airlines about refunds, so it seems likely that May could show high numbers in that area as well.

But the complaint numbers were far from the only ones in the DOT's April report to bear out the dramatic impact that the coronavirus had on U.S. airlines during the month.

Commercial U.S. carriers completed just 194,390 flights during the month — the lowest monthly total since February 1994, when airlines completed 370,027 flights.

Among the other numbers in the April report: 41.3% of scheduled flights during the month were canceled, underscoring the havoc the pandemic unleashed on the industry. Similarly, the industry's on-time arrival rate of just 55.7% was the lowest monthly on-time arrival performance since reporting began in 1987.

This graph provided by the U.S. DOT shows the number of flights operated by U.S. airlines in April 2020 and previous months. (Screenshot courtesy of DOT)
Featured image by Getty Images

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more