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Frontier Tops List of Most Complained About Domestic Airlines in 2022

With 20 complaints per 100,000 passengers, Frontier was the most complained about domestic airline in 2022, followed by fellow low-cost carriers Spirit and JetBlue

by Lauren Smith

April 28, 2023

Photo: Courtesy of Frontier Airlines

Disgruntled air travelers submitted nearly 78,000 complaints to the Department of Transportation (DOT) last year as carriers struggled with rebounding passenger numbers and a holiday blizzard.

But some airlines performed much worse than others, with budget operator Frontier Airlines drawing the most complaints, followed by rivals Spirit and JetBlue.

Frontier attracted 20 complaints for every 100,000 passengers in 2022, according to DOT data analyzed by the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

The Denver-based low-cost airline also had the worst record for involuntarily bumping passengers off flights by a wide margin: 2.66 involuntary bumpings per 10,000 travelers, compared to 0.67 and 0.55 per 10,000 passengers for the following worst performers, Envoy Air and Southwest Airlines.

Photo: Courtesy of Christian Brinkmann / Airbus

At the other end of the spectrum, Delta, Allegiant, Endeavour, and Hawaiian didn’t involuntarily bump a single passenger last year.

Frontier’s overall complaints ratio was double that of the second-worst performer, Spirit Airlines, which had ten complaints per 100,000 flyers. JetBlue, whose merger attempt with Spirit was recently blocked by regulators, was the third, with nine gripes per 100,000 customers.

Frontier and Spirit declined to comment on the rankings. A spokesperson for JetBlue, speaking to CBS MoneyWatch, attributed the New York-based carrier’s cancellations and delays and, thus, its high complaints volume to its focus on crowded air space in the Northeast.

Spirit Airlines counter in Orlando International Airport / Photo: Viaval Tours/Shutterstock

“In 2022, 76% of our operations touched congested airspace, compared to 42% for our closest competitor and other competitors ranging from 7% to 32%,” he said.

Nationally, airlines averaged six complaints per 100,000 passengers, more than five times higher than the ratio in 2019, the most recent year not affected by the pandemic.

Horizon Airlines has the lowest complaints ratio (1.09 per 100,000 customers), followed by SkyWest Airlines (1.37) and Mesa Airlines (1.74). Delta was the best performer among the big four airlines, with 2.66 complaints for every 100,000 flyers, while Southwest was the worst (6.75).

In total, customers lodged 77,656 complaints about airlines in 2022. Nearly a third of complaints were about flight problems, including delays, cancellations, and missed connections.

Unsurprisingly, Southwest Airlines, currently under federal scrutiny for its holiday meltdown, generated the highest volume of complaints of this type: just over 7,000, compared to 3,000 from the next-worst performer American Airlines.

Photo: Courtesy of Southwest Airlines / Stephen M. Keller

Southwest wasn’t the only airline that stumbled when the “bomb cyclone” descended just before Christmas: carriers drew 16,876 gripes in December.

Airlines have insisted that many of their stumbles during that period were due to the weather and, therefore, out of their control. For example, in March, trade group Airlines for America told MoneyWatch that two-thirds (66%) of cancellations in 2022 resulted from poor weather.

But Teresa Murray, consumer watchdog at PIRG, poured cold water on that excuse. “To be clear, 2022 was a bad year for the airlines long before the Christmastime meltdown,” she said.

“Airlines often post unrealistic schedules, they cancel flights and they drag their feet with refunds. Airlines and online ticket agents just don’t face enough consequences when they abuse customers,” she said.

Across 2022, U.S. carriers canceled more than 190,000 domestic flights and delayed another 1.4 million. This was the highest number of flight cancellations, excluding the pandemic-disrupted 2020, since 2001, when air space was closed following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The national flight cancellation rate hit 2.7%, up from around 1.8% in 2021. JetBlue outpaced even Southwest with cancellations, axing 3.74% of their flights. Hawaiian scrapped the fewest departures, just 0.92%.

Meanwhile, just 77% of flights arrived on time, compared to over 81% in 2021. Delta got 82.5% of its planes to their gates on time, making it the best performer, while discount carrier Allegiant came in last place, with an on-time rate of just 63%.

Photo: American Airlines regional jets. Courtesy of Miguel Ángel Sanz / Unsplash

Many of these cancellations and delays came at the height of the summer travel season. Airlines sagged under the weight of restored demand and struggled to restaff after letting crew members go during the pandemic. The disruption was so bad that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sent a letter to airlines in August, criticizing their “unacceptable” performance.

Amid the chaos, regulators and lawmakers have taken a tougher stance toward airlines. For example, the Department of Transportation has proposed tweaking federal rules around flight refunds, removing some ambiguity that allows carriers to wiggle out of compensation.

Legislators have pushed regulators to go further: the “Passengers’ Bill of Rights and the Forbidding Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous Fees (FAIR) Act,” proposed by Senators Richard Blumenthal and Edward Markey, would, among other things, require airlines to issue refunds and cover alternative transportation for flights delayed between one and four hours.

“The year-end winter storm disaster that ruined holiday plans for millions of families added more fuel to efforts by regulators and lawmakers to improve consumer protections on everything from scheduling to junk fees to family seating,” the PIRG’s Murray said.