While data from the US Department of Transportation (DOT) shows improvement in airline customer service over the past decade, passenger complaints to the agency have increased over 10% during the same period, according to a recent report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Over the 10-year period of the review, the GAO counted the lowest rate of involuntary denied boardings occurred in 2017, down to just 0.003% of all passengers, a decrease from previous years. Voluntary denied boardings also dropped to 341,000 passengers in 2017, from a high of 695,000 in 2009.

There was also an industry-wide improvement in on-time performance, with the percentage of late arrivals nearly 4% lower since 2008, and the number of diverted and canceled flights in 2017 well below their 10-year averages. Rates of mishandled baggage have also fallen over the last 10 years, dropping to a rate of 2.5 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers in 2017, from 5.25 in 2008.

Despite these operational improvements, the number of passenger complaints received by DOT, relative to enplanements, increased between 2008 and 2017 by 10%, from 1.1 complaints per 100,000 passengers to 1.2. At least 70% of all passenger complaints submitted to DOT focused on four categories; flight problems including delays and cancellations (33%); baggage issues (15%); reservation, ticketing and boarding (13%); and customer service (13%).

DOT’s passenger complaint data do not include complaints submitted directly to airlines. The agency estimates that airlines receive 50 complaints for each complaint received by the agency, which the GAO said is an indication of subpar educational efforts surrounding consumer rights at DOT.

The GAO concluded that, while DOT has taken steps to educate passengers on their rights, its efforts did not align with four of the nine key practices the watchdog had previously identified for conducting consumer education, such as establishing performance measures and taking steps to introduce long-term resources for education efforts.

The watchdog recommended that DOT should rectify these shortcomings by expanding its customer outreach efforts, setting performance measures surrounding the handling of passenger complaints and soliciting feedback directly from airline passengers, through interviews, surveys or focus groups, rather than waiting for them to file complaints through the existing process.

One way that DOT can improve its handling of customer complaints is through the office of Aviation Consumer Advocate, which was created as part of the multi-year FAA reauthorization bill that was passed in early October. The new position will be charged with assisting consumers in resolving carrier service complaints, reviewing the resolution by DOT of such complaints and recommending actions the agency can take to improve enforcement of aviation consumer protection rules.

Ben Goldstein, Ben.Goldstein@aviationweek.com