WASHINGTON – Airline passengers are getting grumpier, and it’s little wonder.
Airlines keep shrinking the size of seats to stuff more people onto planes, those empty middle seats that once provided a little more room are now occupied, and more people with tickets are being turned away because flights are overbooked.
Private researchers who analyzed federal data on airline performance also said in a report being released today that consumer complaints to the Department of Transportation surged by one-fifth last year even though other measures such as on-time arrivals and mishandled baggage show airlines are doing a better job.
“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,” said Dean Headley, a business professor at Wichita State University who has co-written the annual report for 23 years.
“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,” he said.
The industry is even looking at ways to make toilets more compact in the hope of squeezing a few more seats onto planes.
In recent years, some airlines have shifted to larger planes that can carry more people, but that hasn’t been enough to make up for an overall reduction in flights.
The rate at which passengers with tickets were denied seats because planes were full rose to 0.97 denials per 10,000 passengers last year, compared with 0.78 in 2011.
It used to be in cases of overbookings that airlines usually could find a passenger who would volunteer to give up a seat in exchange for cash, a free ticket or some other compensation with the expectation of catching a later flight. Not anymore.
“Since flights are so full, there are no seats on those next flights. So people say, ‘No, not for $500, not for $1,000,’ ” said industry analyst Robert W. Mann Jr.
But not every airline overbooks flights in an effort to keep seats full. JetBlue and Virgin America were the industry leaders in avoiding denied boardings, with rates of 0.01 and 0.07, respectively.
United Airlines had the highest consumer complaint rate of the 14 airlines included in the report, with 4.24 complaints per 100,000 passengers. Southwest had the lowest rate, at 0.25.
Consumer complaints were significantly higher in the peak summer travel months of June, July and August when planes are especially crowded.
At the same time complaints were increasing, airlines were doing a better job of getting passengers to their destinations on time. The industry’s on-time performance has improved in recent years, partly due to airlines’ decision to cut back on the number of flights.
The industry’s shift to charging for fees for extra bags, or sometimes charging fees for any bags, has significantly reduced the rate of lost or mishandled bags. Passengers are checking fewer bags than before, and carrying more bags onto planes.