Air travel is getting worse. That’s what passengers are telling the U.S. government

WASHINGTON — Airline conditions got even worse last year, according to the number of consumer complaints filed with the U.S. government.

The Department of Transportation said Friday it received nearly 97,000 complaints in 2023, up from about 86,000 the year before. The department said there were so many complaints that it took until July to sort through the files and compile the figures.

That’s the highest number of consumer complaints about airlines since 2020, when airlines were slow to refund customers after air travel ground to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The increase in complaints came even as airlines canceled far fewer U.S. flights — 116,700, or 1.2% of the total, last year, compared with about 210,500, or 2.3%, in 2022, according to FlightAware data. Delays remained stubbornly high last year, however, at about 21% of all flights.

So far this year, cancellations have remained relatively low — about 1.3% of all flights — but delays still stand at about 21%.

More than two-thirds of all complaints last year were about U.S. airlines, but a quarter were about foreign airlines. The rest were mostly about travel agents and tour operators.

Complaints about the treatment of passengers with disabilities rose by more than a quarter compared to 2022. Complaints about discrimination, while small in number, also rose sharply, with most of them based on race or national origin.

Vacationers wait for their luggage after arriving at Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday.Rick Bowmer / AP

The Department of Transportation said the increase in complaints was partly the result of more consumers being aware of their rights and the ability to file a complaint. The department said it helped Southwest Airlines customers obtain more than $600 million in refunds and compensation after the airline canceled nearly 17,000 flights in December 2022. Southwest also paid a $35 million fine.

Airlines receive many more complaints from travelers who don’t know how to file a complaint with the government or don’t bother. However, the airlines don’t release these numbers.

The Department of Transportation is modernizing its complaints system, which the agency says will help it better oversee the aviation industry. But the department is months late in publishing complaint figures. It only released figures for the second half of 2023 on Friday.

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