Aug. 15, 2012 at 9:58 AM ET
Ah, summer — the time of year for beaches, barbecues and complaining about the circle of hell more commonly known as air travel.
There’s still time to savor the sun, sand and steaks but when the subject turns to the hassles of air travel, travelers may want to count their blessings instead. Sporadic weather disruptions aside, this summer has been pleasantly devoid of the usual seasonal snafus.
So why are passenger complaints soaring? In June, travelers lodged 1,353 complaints about U.S. airlines with the Department of Transportation (DOT), an increase of 44 percent over both the previous month and the year before.
It’s not because flights are delayed, bags are going missing and people are sitting on the tarmac for hours on end. According to the June operational numbers reported to DOT:
“Thanks to systemic operational improvements, mild weather and 20 percent fewer flights from five years ago, customers are benefiting as airlines continue to set impressive on-time arrival records and dramatically reduce lengthy delays,” said Steve Lott, spokesman for Airlines for America, a trade group for U.S. airlines.
Among those system improvements, Lott cited newer, more reliable planes; improved boarding procedures; better coordination with ground crews; and schedules that more accurately reflect the realities of the air traffic control system.
At the same time, there are fewer planes in the sky and fewer passengers transiting the nation’s airports, which has taken some stress off the system (if not off travelers) and minimized the cascading effects of service interruptions of years’ past.
In fact, according to OAG, which compiles flight schedules, North American carriers will offer 950,083 fewer seats this August compared to last year and 21,401 fewer flights. Year-to-date, the number of scheduled flights is down 2 percent, resulting in the lowest August level for 10 years, says the company.
Weather, too, has helped as no hurricanes have hit U.S. shores; system-crippling thunderstorms remain the exception and dry weather blankets much of the country.
“It’s been a relatively calm summer,” said Joe Brancatelli, publisher of JoeSentMe.com, a website for business travelers. “What’s been terrible for farmers in the Midwest has been great for travelers.”
So if things are so good, why are fliers so unhappy? Beyond the usual suspects — high fares, full planes, fees for everything beyond a seatbelt and oxygen mask — experts point to the turmoil inherent in a complex industry where several major players are trying to merge fleets, computer systems and labor groups.
“One airline is toward the end of its merger, one is in the middle of a merger, one is in the early stages of a merger — and one is in bankruptcy, said Jonathan Kletzel, U.S. Transportation and Logistics Advisory Leader for PwC.
“When things go wrong, it’s not that you’re delayed for two hours,” he said. “It’s that they lost your reservation or displaced your entire family.”
Case in point: United Airlines, which continues to struggle in the months since its less-than-stellar integration of merger-partner Continental. In June, the carrier not only posted the lowest on-time performance among major U.S. carriers (70.1 percent) but also accounted for 43 percent (585) of the 1,353 consumer complaints registered with DOT.
That’s not surprising, says David VanAmburg, managing director for ACSI, as satisfaction with specific carriers typically takes a dip during mergers. Delta, for example, “took a big dive” after its merger with Northwest but has since “recovered nicely,” he said.
And there are signs that the industry as a whole is improving its standing with travelers, albeit from a level that’s never been particularly impressive.
“Satisfaction with the airlines is pretty abysmal and has been for a long time,” he told NBC News, “but we’re starting to see some improvement. In June, the industry scored 67 [on a 100-point scale], tying its 10-year high. In a sense, any positive efforts are going to have a significant effect because they’re starting from such a low point.”
Or, as Brancatelli puts it, “You’re never going to have people coming off airplanes, saying, ‘Man, that crappy coach flight was the best flight I’ve ever been on.’ But if they get off the plane and they don’t hate you, that’s a good thing.”
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.