These airlines had the least and most complaints last year

When it comes to air travel, surprises happen – some good, some not so great. An air travel consumer report released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) gives insight into how domestic airlines have been doing in the last 12 months. As it turns out – not so bad.

Based on the report, air travel complaints issued by airline consumers to the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division were down 14.1 percent from 2012, with 2013 garnering a total of 13,168 complaints, down from the previous year’s 15,338. So which airlines are getting things right? And which areas are they excelling in?

Topping the list of fewest complaints for the second year in a row was Southwest Airlines. On its heels were Alaska Airlines and Delta Airlines. Showing room for improvement were American Airlines, United Airlines and Frontier Airlines in slots 14 through 16.

Despite its 15th position on the DOT report, United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson noted the airline’s 50% improvement from its DOT approval rating in 2012 and said internal ratings rose 70%.

“We spend a great deal of time looking at surveys that come back from customers – at least 8,000 per day, along with emails and letters, and reports from the DOT,” he told Yahoo Travel. “We’re very happy that we’re making progress in meeting customer expectations, getting customers to their destinations and delivering a pleasant experience. We’re not done, though, and we recognize we’re not done.”

Not surprisingly, time was one of the most looked-at factors on the DOT survey, from tarmac delays to arrival times.

Which airlines are consistently on time? Hawaiian Airlines was the top ranked at 93.3% last year, followed by Alaska Airlines at 87.2% and Delta Airlines at 84.5%. The lowest-ranked airlines for arrival times were American Eagle Airlines at 72.1%, followed by Expressjet at 72.8% and Frontier Airlines at 73.1%.

Southwest Airlines had the fourth-worst ranking for arrival time (76.7%), and it attributes that to connect times and tightened turn times made to add flights at more desirable times of the day without adding aircraft.

“Looking back, the changes we made were too aggressive and impacted our overall performance – putting us behind on on-time by around 10 minutes,” SWA spokesman Brian Parrish told Yahoo Travel in an email.

Parrish says SWA has been working on schedule adjustments since earlier this month in an effort to improve. “The adjustments will fully roll into our schedule throughout this year and by the end of 2014, our performance should be back on track. Some of the changes that we’re making to our network include adding time back into our network to offer more flexibility when recovering the schedule and increasing minimum connect times on many of our tighter itineraries.”

Of course, there can be uncontrollable reasons for delays. Weather-related tarmac delays have gained national attention over the years, resulting in a Passenger Bill of Rights enacted in August 2011 that limits domestic flight delays to three hours and four hours for international flights. Exceptions are in place for issues such as safety and security.  

 “Tarmac delays over three hours have been virtually eliminated over the last four years, said a DOT spokesperson who asked not to be named. “From January to December 2013, there were 84 tarmac delays longer than three hours on U.S. domestic flights compared to the 693 three-hour-plus tarmac delays between May 2009 and April 2010, the last 12-month period before the rule took effect.  In 2011, we expanded the tarmac delay rule to cover additional flights, including international flights of both U.S. and foreign airlines operating at U.S. airports.”

Do complaints have an impact? Henry H. Harteveldt , a travel industry analyst and strategist with Hudson Crossing, LLC, matter-of-factly, told Yahoo Travel this: “If an airline is chronically late, it knows it won’t attract or keep customers, especially business travelers.”

Along with delays come cancellations. Carriers reportedly cancelled 2.9% of their scheduled domestic flights for December 2013, up from 2012’s 1.6% cancellation rate.

“Some airlines proactively rebook passengers affected by a flight delay or cancellation, and they email or text the traveler if they have the traveler’s contact information,” Harteveldt said. “Some airlines use social networks like Twitter to assist passengers who are having problems as well. These efforts help reduce the number of unhappy passengers, and thus may in part contribute to a reduction in complaints.”

Related video on how Delta Airlines handled weather cancellations earlier this month.

Another common complaint – baggage mishandling. Turns out, this is problem area that has increased since 2012, with a mishandled baggage rate of 3.22 per 1,000 customers in 2013 over 2012’s 3.09 rate. Says Harteveldt, “With most U.S. airlines charging passengers to check their luggage, it’s critical they deliver the bags as expected. Our research at Hudson Crossing shows that more than 70% of travelers expect the reliability of a service to improve when an airline starts to charge for a service that was once free.”

Passengers of both the human and animal variety had their own complaint categories. Pet deaths were down in 2013 from 2012’s 29 to 21. Injuries also decreased from 29 to 15. Lost pets increased by five in 2013.

Discrimination reported by disabled passengers in 2013 dropped 8.4%. Complaints of discrimination due to race, religion, national origin or sex were also down by 20.2%.

Can 2013’s improvement in many areas of airline travel be attributed to passengers making their voices heard? Johnson said customer feedback has led to many changes within United, including a 2013 refresher training for customer-facing employees. “It’s an ongoing program that’s a direct contributor in reduction of complaints and increased satisfaction,” he said, adding that technology demands were heard as well: “Customers consistently requested WiFi connectivity on planes. In 2012, we started outfitting our planes with satellite WiFi.”