In the news

CALPIRG Education Fund
The San Francisco Chronicle
Kathleen Pender

Spirit Airlines generated the most complaints per 100,000 passengers and Southwest the least, according to a study released Thursday.

The study, by the CALPIRG Education Fund, analyzed complaint data for 13 large domestic airlines lodged with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division from 2009 through 2013. It found that most complaints are about delayed or canceled flights.

Spirit, known for ultra-low fares and annoying fees, generated the most complaints for its size by a wide margin. “Each year, Spirit’s passengers were about three times as likely to file a complaint as the second-place airline, and its complaints volume is trending upward over time,” the report said.

“They are notorious for nickel and diming passengers,” said Austin Price, CALPIRG field director. Spirit charges $26 to $100 to carry on a bag, $1 to $50 to choose a seat and $10 to get a boarding pass printed at the airport.

Spirit said in an e-mail that “many of the DOT complaints about Spirit are driven by our customers not fully understanding that we offer unbundled fares that let them control how much they spend. In 2013, we had a total of 1,021 DOT complaints and served over 12 million customers. While we want every customer to have a great experience, eight complaints per 100,000 enplanements is a pretty small number.” (Every time a passenger boards a plane it counts as one enplanement.)

CALPIRG’s numbers for 2013, based on an early estimate, were slightly different for Spirit and worked out to 9.4 complaints per enplanement. Laura Murray, the report’s author, said her numbers for Spirit might be “a little off, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re still in first place by a mile.”

After Spirit, the carriers that ranked highest on the complaint scale were Frontier Airlines, United Airlines, and American Airlines, “with complaints per 100,000 passengers steadily increasing over the past few years,” the report said.

Southwest Airlines generated the fewest complaints per 100,000 passengers in each of the past five years. Alaska Airlines, AirTran Airways and JetBlue Airlines also generated relatively few complaints for their size.

Even when things go wrong, Southwest customers seem not to complain to the DOT as much as other airline passengers.

For example, Southwest ranked in the middle of the pack when it came to mishandling bags in 2013, yet it had the fewest baggage complaints per 100,000 passengers lodged with the DOT.

Because it is one of the few airlines that let all passengers check bags for free, perhaps “they don’t complain as much about lost bags,” says George Hobica, founder of

Another anomaly: Southwest’s on-time performance ranked in the bottom half of airlines in 2013, and it had the worst record when it came to flight delays under the airline’s control. Yet it had the fewest complaints per 100,000 about flight problems such as delays and cancellations.

“Their customers aren’t complaining to the DOT,” Murray said. “Maybe they are addressing it at the airport or their customer service is much more effective” than other airlines.

Hobica says Southwest’s on-time performance has suffered as it has expanded from out-of-the-way airports to larger, delay-prone ones in cities such as New York and Atlanta. But it manages to ward off complaints with “jolly” employees and customer-friendly policies. “They give you a credit if you cancel or change your reservation versus the $200 fee that American, Delta and United charge to change” a non-refundable ticket.

The CALPIRG study included airlines that had 10 million or more enplanements (flight segments) in 2013, Murray said. Popular airlines such as Virgin America, based in Burlingame, and Hawaiian Airlines missed the cutoff.

Despite its horrendous complaint record, Spirit is making money and its stock is flying high. Its shares are up about 136 percent over the past year, compared to an 87 percent gain for Southwest stock.

Even with all the fees, “Spirit is still cheaper” in many cases. And for some people, that’s all that matters, Hobica said. “Their CEO is famous for saying, basically, you get what you pay for.”

CALPIRG has also released a consumer tip sheet on your rights concerning flight delays, cancellations, and what to do if the airline loses your bag.



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