Air Travel Is Awful. Transparency Can Improve It.

If passengers steer more business to the carriers with the best service, that will motivate underperforming rivals to fix their problems. Sorting them is the first step.

When airline passengers watch in horror as their flight status blinks from “delayed” to “canceled,” two competing visions are likely to pop into their heads. One is pitchforks and torches. The other is a couple of hundred other travelers scrambling to get on the next available flight. Linger too long on pitchfork and torches, though, and a third vision comes into play: having to find a hotel room.

Air travel is full of nightmare scenarios. The percentage of cancellations is at the highest in at least 15 years excluding the pandemic-ravaged 2020. Complaints to the Transportation Department about US airlines spiked to 16,000 in the first half of this year from 6,000 in the same period three years ago, even though there were more flights in 2019. Passengers are left to wonder where the $50 billion in Covid payroll aid for the industry went.

Busy Skies

US airlines are flying more and canceling more flights than in average years

Source: US Department of Transportation

Note: Data for Jan.-June of each year

All this agony has led to calls for more regulation, and the government has urged airlines to give meal vouchers for delays of at least three hours that are caused by the carriers themselves and provide lodging for passengers stranded overnight. It’s a small and possibly tempting step to go from urging these steps to requiring them.

Poor Performance

US airlines’ on-time performance has dropped to the lowest point since 2014

Source: US Department of Transportation

Note: Data for Jan.-June for each year

Before taking drastic measures to force airlines to improve service, let’s consider some context. The economy is emerging from a pandemic that turned society upside down, created labor shortages, and threw off track all modes of transportation, including trucking, railroads, maritime shipping, and, yes, airlines. Moreover, it’s a good bet that if the airlines are required by the government to go beyond what they already do for meals and hotel stays, they will claw that back from everyone through higher prices. Fines or other mandates would only drive up ticket prices as well. Airlines can also blame the weather and air-traffic control problems for delays and cancellations to get around pesky compensation rules.

One way customers can influence airlines and improve service, though, is through their pocketbooks. Competition has a way of changing behavior. To do so, however, travelers need better information.

The Transportation Department took the right steps last week by requiring airlines to make clear their policies on cancellations, delays, refunds, and other service areas on a website called the “Airline Customer Service Dashboard.” More could be done with this tool. Consumers need additional information on performance that’s easy to digest and that allows them to compare which airlines are most likely to cancel a flight or lose a bag.

On the website that Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced after pounding on the airlines for weeks, there is detailed information about the airlines’ policies and travelers’ rights for demanding a refund. A link takes the user to a Transportation Department format for making a complaint online.

There’s also a handy graphic that shows whether airlines will pay for a meal if a flight is delayed or spring for a hotel room if a flight is canceled and requires an overnight stay. There are 10 commitments listed and squares for each airline that show a green checkmark if a carrier complies and a red X if not. Large carriers such as American Airlines Group Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., and United Airlines Holding Inc. have green checkmarks by all the categories, such as “complimentary ground transportation to and from the hotel for any passenger affected by an overnight delay.” Smaller airlines, many of which fly under service agreements with the large carriers, have spottier offerings. Just a warning to fliers, Allegiant Air LLC is the only one that has a red X on all 10 categories.

Travelers can click on a link to each airline to obtain their policy details, which is helpful because they are often buried in the fine print and given only if insisted upon. Still, the dashboard could tell consumers so much more. Information should clearly show which airlines have the best record of on-time arrivals or the worst on cancellations.

The Transportation Department already has all this data and much more. It’s buried in a monthly report that runs about 80 pages called the Air Travel Consumer Report. It’s a bit dense, though, and a lot of good stuff is buried, such as the number of customer complaints on each airline and the reasons.

Below are a couple of charts that travelers may want to consult before buying tickets. With a quick glance, passengers can see that there’s more than a third of a chance a flight will be delayed if taking Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, or Allegiant. Delta keeps to schedule 81% of the time, and American Airlines is in the middle of the pack with a 75% on-time performance record.

Consumer Choice

Airline data the DOT’s dashboard could provide to help consumers

Source: US Department of Transportation

Note: Data for Jan.-June 2022

Be careful with Americans, though. As the next chart shows, the Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier will mishandle checked bags 1.2% of the time, which is the worst of all carriers.

Lost Bags

DOT’s dashboard could provide data on services such as bags mishandled

Source: US Department of Transportation

Note: Data for Jan.- June 2022

On customer complaints, for example, Frontier Airlines is a dubious No. 1. For every 100,000 flights, it gets about 15 complaints. That compares with 1.2 for Southwest Airlines. Maybe that cheap Frontier flight isn’t worth the money saved if the passenger is left stranded at an airport and can’t get a refund. Making this impartial consumer information readily available and easy to read would put pressure on the airlines to improve service.

If consumers vote with their feet and give more business to the airlines with the best service, that will motivate companies to fix their problems. Having some of that information at the fingertips of consumers is a good place to start.


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