April 8, 2013

Full flights, small seats make passengers grumpy

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Airline passenger complaints to the Transportation Department 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, according to a report being released Monday.

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Passengers travel through an airport in Miami recently. "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," says Dean Headley, a business professor at Wichita State University.

AP

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Private researchers who have analyzed federal data on airline performance say it's not surprising that passengers are irritated. Carriers keep shrinking the size of seats in order to stuff more people into planes. Empty middle seats that might provide a little more room have vanished. And more people who have bought tickets are being turned away because flights are overbooked.

"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 in Kansas 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 today's smaller-than-a-broom closet toilets more compact in the hope of squeezing a few more seats onto planes.

"I can't imagine the uproar that making toilets smaller might generate," Headley said, especially given that passengers increasingly weigh more than they use to. Nevertheless, "will it keep them from flying? I doubt it would."

The rate of complaints per 100,000 passengers also rose to 1.43 last year from 1.19 in 2011.

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 another flight later that day or the next morning. 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 airline industry analyst Robert W. Mann Jr.

Regional carrier SkyWest had the highest involuntary denied-boardings rate last year, 2.32 per 10,000 passengers.

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. That was nearly double the airline's complaint rate the previous year. Southwest had the lowest rate, at 0.25. Southwest was among five airlines that lowered complaint rates last year from 2011. The others were American Eagle, Delta, JetBlue and US Airways.

Consumer complaints were significantly higher in the peak summer travel months of June, July and August when planes are especially crowded.

"As airplanes get fuller, complaints get higher because people just don't like to be sardines," Mann said.

The complaints are regarded as indicators of a larger problem because many passengers may not realize they can file complaints with the Transportation Department, which regulates airlines.

(Continued on page 2)

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