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Ultra low cost carriers report high rate of complaints in 2011

A Spirit Airlines aircraft prepares for departure at Ft. Lauderdale. Spirit passengers complained to the Department of Transportation about the airline at more than six times the national average.
A Spirit Airlines aircraft prepares for departure at Ft. Lauderdale. Spirit passengers complained to the Department of Transportation about the airline at more than six times the national average.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Department of Transportation has been compiling statistics on airline consumer complaints since 1987, with the most recent report published Tuesday. However, like most government agencies, the DOT grants certain exceptions. For example, carriers that don't meet certain revenue and traffic minimums, while still required to report complaints, do not have their rankings included in the monthly report. For smaller airlines, this can be a blessing - their customer service isn't ranked on the same list as their competition, leaving them free to advertise and promote their services without concrete numbers to rain on their parade.

We looked at three high visibility US carriers that were not large enough to be included on the survey: award-winning Virgin America, secondary airport serving Allegiant, and carryon fee-charging Spirit. The DOT still compiles complaints against these airlines on a quarterly basis, although it doesn't include traffic statistics, which have to be gotten from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics separately. There's quite a bit of lag on these numbers being available, and the latest period for which both traffic and consumer complaint statistics are available is January through June 2011 included on the October, 2011 Report. (Domestic traffic statistics are available through October, but International statistics are only available through July. Both Spirit and Virgin America operate internationally).

Virgin America enplaned 2.15 million passengers during the period, and the DOT recorded 11 complaints, or .48 complaints per 100,000 passengers enplaned. Had Virgin America been included in the DOT Consumer Complaint rankings for the period, it would have been second, behind Southwest Airlines. The most common complaint for Virgin America was in the Refund category, which the DOT defines as "Problems in obtaining refunds for unused or lost tickets, fare adjustments, and bankruptcies". Difficulties stemming from changes to Virgin's reservation system spiked complaints toward the end of the year - the DOT recorded 20 complaints in November and December alone; the carrier ended the year with a total of 40.

Allegiant enplaned 3.05 million passengers during the period, and the DOT recorded 106 complaints, or 3.46 complaints per 100,000 passengers enplaned. Had Allegiant been included in the DOT Consumer Complaint rankings for the period, it would have ranked lower than American Eagle, which came in last among the carriers represented at 16th place with 2.61 complaints per 100,000 passengers enplaned. The most common complaint for Allegiant in the Flight Problems category, which the DOT defines as "Cancellations, delays, or any other deviations from schedule, whether planned or unplanned.

Spirit enplaned 3.39 million passengers during the period, and the DOT recorded 255 complaints, or 6.23 complaints per 100,000 passengers enplaned. Had Spirit been included in the DOT Consumer Complaint rankings for the period, it would have ranked lower than Allegiant, with nearly twice as many complaints as that carrier, and nearly three times the complaints as American Eagle, the lowest ranking carrier in the survey. Flight Problems were also the most common complaint at Spirit. With the surveyed carriers averaging 1.16 complaints per 100,000 passengers, Spirit passengers complained at more than six times the mean.

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