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Most of us were grounded in 2020, but complaints against airlines soared 400 percent

Annual survey found consumers struggled to get COVID-related refunds; Southwest named top US carrier

A Southwest Airlines plane taxis to the gate after landing at Midway International Airport in Chicago last month.KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The number of airline passengers in 2020 may have dropped by 60 percent, but the number of complaints against the 10 largest US airlines jumped dramatically.

Those numbers, released on Monday as part of the annual Wichita State University Airline Quality Rating report, found that complaints against the carriers climbed by nearly 400 percent from 2019 to 2020. The majority of those complaints came from consumers trying to get refunds for flights canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.

As a result, most airlines saw their overall quality rating scores drop. The list is compiled by researchers at Wichita State from information collected by the US Department of Transportation. According to the study, the number of complaints against Southwest Airlines remained relatively low, which helped it secure the top spot in the rankings. The country’s nine other airlines saw their scores plunge by as much as 800 percent from 2019.

In 2020, 83 percent of consumer complaints to the DOT were regarding refunds. In 2019 that number was 6.6 percent. Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, and United Airlines had the highest number of complaints logded.


Despite having the best on-time performance for 2020, Hawaiian Airlines slipped from number two on the list to nine. The number of on-time flights in 2020 was nearly 84 percent in 2020, up from 79 percent in 2019. Overall, airlines also improved their ratings on the number of involuntary denied boardings, with Allegiant, Delta, Hawaiian, and JetBlue besting their competitors.

There also were fewer complaints of mishandled luggage. American Airlines, which has scored poorly on the list for the past several years, had the most reports of mishandled luggage.

“If you did travel by air in 2020, chances are good that you had good performance by the airline. Better on-time performance, fewer mishandled bags, and very few denied boardings were all to be expected with many fewer people flying in the system,” said Dean Headley, emeritus associate professor of marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University. “The airlines had a big challenge in working through refund issues presented by canceled travel plans, but most were able to respond and quell customer concerns in a timely manner.”


Headley said that as vaccinations continue and demand increases, we can expect to see prices go up for flights, and will likely have to say goodbye to pandemic-related concessions, including waived change fees and the delayed expiration of frequent-flyer miles. Last week, Delta Air Lines began selling middle seats again. It was the last carrier to block middle seats.

“The empty middle seat is a thing of the past with the coronavirus showing strong signs of being addressed by vaccinations,” he said.

These are the top 10 US airlines for 2020 as ranked in the annual Airline Quality Rating report, with 2019 rankings in parentheses:

1. Southwest Airlines (3)

2. Allegiant (1)

3. Delta Air Lines (4)

4. Alaska Airlines (5)

5. Spirit Airlines (8)

6. JetBlue (6)

7. American Airlines (10)

8. United Airlines (9)

9. Hawaiian Airlines (2)

10. Frontier Airlines (7)

Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.