Report: Complaints over airline refunds soar during pandemic

BOSTON — Maryssa Conner was standing in line to board a plane in South Carolina last summer when she was told her flight back to Massachusetts was canceled.

“They said there was not enough staff, not enough flight attendants,” Conner said. “We ended up having to sit in the airport until the next flight was available, which was like seven hours [later].”

Flying has always been stressful, but a report from the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group says complaints against the airline industry, particularly over refunds, have skyrocketed during the pandemic.

“People are incredibly frustrated.” MASSPIRG Legislative Director Deirdre Cummings said. “When your flight is canceled, when you’re stranded, that’s one problem. Trying to be made whole after that is a whole other problem.”

MASSPIRG said it examined more than 200,000 complaints filed with the Dept. of Transportation. The consumer watchdog said it found the number one gripe from customers involved in refunds.

“While baggage issues, flight problems, and fares were common complaints before the pandemic...refunds--or lack of---have been the top complaint every month for more than a year,” MASSPIRG’s report said.

The DOT said in September it received 124,918 complaints in the first 18 months of the pandemic. More than 84 percent of them were about refunds.

“There is clear evidence the airline industry could do a lot better in making sure they handle our complaints and our refunds in a more seamless way,” Cummings said.

The airlines canceled or delayed thousands of flights in December and January, citing staffing shortages amid the Omicron variant, then uncertainty over the deployment of 5G network technology. MASSPIRG has a list of tips for traveling during the pandemic and getting a refund if your flight is canceled.

While refunds top MASSPIRG’s list of complaints, flyers said they also had issues with delays, missed connections, reservations, and baggage. MASSPIRG found Frontier, United, and Hawaiian airlines received the most overall complaints per 100,000 customers since May 2020. Southwest and Delta received the fewest, the report said.

MASSPIRG also reviewed which airlines got passengers to their destinations on time: Delta, Hawaiian, and Alaska airlines were the best at getting their customers to their destinations within 15 minutes of the arrival time; Allegiant and JetBlue were found to be the worst for punctuality, according to MASSPIRG’s report.

Consumer advocates say there are three things you can do if you think an airline owes you a refund:

  • Use social media: It’s a great tool to get an airline’s attention, so don’t be afraid to take your complaint to Facebook or Twitter
  • Be patient, polite, and persistent: It may take several hours to get someone on the phone, but call every day if you have to
  • If you’ve tried to remedy the problem with the airline but can’t get anywhere, then you should take your complaint to the Dept. of Transportation

You can file a consumer complaint with the DOT by clicking here.

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