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Airlines improve performance, but complaints persist

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
updated 9:14 PM EDT, Thu August 9, 2012
Major airlines set an 18-year record for on-time performance during the first half of 2012 but customer complaints continue.
Major airlines set an 18-year record for on-time performance during the first half of 2012 but customer complaints continue.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A new federal report shows significant performance improvement by major airlines
  • Airlines set an 18-year record for on-time performance during the first half of this year
  • Meanwhile, complaints rose 24% during the first half of 2012, the report says
  • Industry officials say that may be because the DOT has made it easier to file complaints

Washington (CNN) -- The nation's major airlines -- lambasted for years because of canceled flights, long tarmac delays, late arrivals and lost luggage -- have significantly improved in all four of those key measurements of customer service, the federal government said Thursday.

Indeed, airlines set an 18-year record for on-time performance during the first half of this year, a report by the Department of Transportation said. And lengthy tarmac delays have decreased dramatically.

The 586 lengthy tarmac delays recorded during the first half of 2009 dropped to four delays for the same time period this year.

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The improvements are "very good news," said Kate Hanni of Flyersrights.org, a passenger advocacy group that fought for rules penalizing carriers for tarmac delays.

"We said that our tarmac rules were going to force efficiency, and that's what we think is happening," Hanni said.

"I think the weather has something to do with it as well, in all fairness," she said.

Airlines also have worked to improve customer satisfaction, Hanna said. "I think they realized they hit a bottom and they realized their customers wouldn't take any more abuse."

In a statement, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also credited the new DOT rules.

"Our new airline consumer rules and our vigorous oversight of the aviation industry are holding airlines accountable to their customers," LaHood said.

An airline trade group heralded the report.

"Our member airlines are delivering levels of customer service that no other industry, given its complexity, matches and are working to make air travel even more efficient for passengers and shippers," Nicholas Calio of Airlines for America said in a statement.

The improved service, interestingly, has not resulted in fewer complaints to the DOT. Instead, complaints rose 24% during the first half of 2012, the report says. A DOT spokesman said the department has seen an "uptick" in complaints when there's a lot of publicity about airline consumer issues, such as January when many of the provisions of the new airline consumer rule took effect.

Industry officials say the complaints may be on the rise because the DOT has made it easier to file grievances, and because passengers may be complaining about factors not covered by the DOT report, such as rising ticket prices, cramped seating and baggage fees.

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The DOT may see another uptick when a new requirement takes effect requiring airlines to publish the DOT toll-free hotline number on web sites and e-tickets.

The DOT's Air Travel Consumer Report released Thursday says:

-- The 15 largest U.S. airlines had an 83.7% on-time arrival rate during the first six months of the year, the highest mark for any January-June period in the 18 years the department has collected comparable data.

-- Airlines canceled 1.1% of flights, also the lowest rate for the past 18 years.

-- There were only four tarmac delays longer than three hours on domestic flights during the six-month period. This follows the department's rule, which took effect in April 2010, setting a three-hour limit for aircraft carrying passengers on domestic flights to sit on the tarmac. In contrast, there were 586 lengthy tarmac delays between January and June of 2009, the year before the tarmac rule went into effect.

-- Airlines posted the lowest rate of mishandled baggage for the period since the data was first reported in September 1987. The record of 2.97 reports of mishandled baggage per 1,000 passengers improved on the previous January-June then-record low of 3.60 set last year.

There were other measurements that, though small in number, put airline customer service in a negative light.

The DOT received 344 complaints about airlines' treatment of disabled passengers during the six-month period, up 20.7% from the comparable period in 2011.

And airlines bumped -- involuntarily denied boarding -- to 0.98 per 10,000 passengers, up from a 0.80 rate in the first half of 2011.

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