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Airline Gripes Take Off; Complaints Climb 20 Percent, U.S. DOT Reports; Chicago's Hubs Worst For Late Departures In June

CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Complaints about airlines soared more than 20 percent during the first half of this year, according to a government report released Tuesday. Meanwhile, Chicago-based United Airlines had an abysmal on-time rate in June, with just two-thirds of flights arriving on time, according to the same report.

And more bad news: Chicago's two airports were the worst in the country among large airports for on-time departures in June, when thunderstorms and heavy passenger traffic often led to flight delays.

This comes amid a period of prosperity for U.S. airlines, which are making record profits from full planes and low fuel prices.

From January to June this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation received 9,542 consumer complaints, up 20.3 percent from the first half of 2014.

Part of the reason is that often-complained-about Spirit Airlines, known for add-on fees, was added to the list of airlines reporting its complaint data.

Spirit and competing ultralow discount airline Frontier had by far the worst complaint rates, more than five times the industry average and 20 times the rate of the least-complained-about carrier, Southwest Airlines.

Complaints about flight problems, like cancellations, delays and misconnections, were most common, followed by gripes about baggage, reservations and ticketing, and customer service.

Complaint rates for June alone worsened considerably, with more than 2,000 complaints, up nearly 50 percent over last year.

For on-time arrivals in June, United ranked second-to-last with just 66.3 percent of flights arriving on time, a rate that beat only Spirit, at 49.9 percent.

Most punctual in June were Hawaiian, Alaska and Delta.

For on-time departure airports, Midway was worst among 29 large airports, with an on-time rate of 63.5 percent, barely worse than O'Hare, at 63.8 percent.

Spirit ranked by far the worst in chronically delayed flights in June. Nearly a quarter of its regularly scheduled flights were late 70 percent of the time or more, a threshold the Transportation Department uses to define chronically late.

Orbitz merger faces more opposition: Online travel agencies Chicago-based Orbitz Worldwide and Expedia are feeling the heat recently with public objections to their proposed $1.3 billion merger.

This week Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit public interest group, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice opposing the merger, warning the deal "would give the combined company monopolistic control of the online booking market, enabling it to impose higher fees on hotels, which would inevitably mean higher costs for consumers." The letter asks the government to block the merger.

It joins voices from the hotel industry, which has officially opposed the deal, along with several U.S. senators and congressmen.

Opponents note that if the merger goes through, Expedia and competitor The Priceline Group will control 95 percent of the online travel agency bookings in the U.S., according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association. Expedia acquired Travelocity this year. Priceline owns sites such as Booking.com and Kayak.

Poll shows fliers wrong on fares: A recent poll of 2,500 travelers by Airfarewatchdog.com shows 91 percent of people think airfares have risen over the past 10 to 20 years. The perception is common, but when adjusting for inflation, fares have actually decreased over the past couple of decades, said Airfarewatchdog President George Hobica.

"We recently saw coast-to-coast fares on United for $150 round-trip including tax; Chicago to Boston and LA was $80 round-trip on several airlines," he said.
"Of course, it depends on where you're going and when, but in general, we find that adjusted for inflation, airfares have not gone up over the last two decades. In fact, an argument can be made that they've actually gone down."

However, while fares might not have risen, tack-on fees for such services as checking bags and changing tickets have exploded in recent years. And some airlines are squeezing more passengers into the same-size cabin.

So, fliers might not be paying more, but they're getting less.

Best loyalty programs: Alaska Airlines has the best frequent-flier program among airlines, while Marriott was tops among hotel loyalty programs, according to a recent report.

American, Southwest and JetBlue also rated highly among airlines, according to U.S. News & World Report, which ranked 28 airline and hotel loyalty programs.

However, large network carriers United and Delta ranked eighth and ninth of 10, besting only ultra-low discount airline Spirit.

Airlines were judged on numerous factors, such as ease of earning a free round-trip flight and other benefits, routes offered, award flight availability and airline quality.

Among hotel chain reward programs, Marriott Rewards was followed by Wyndham Rewards and Best Western Rewards, which tied with Club Carlson. The program for Chicago-based Hyatt, called Gold Passport, ranked 10th of 18.

Hotel ratings were calculated based on such factors as ease of earning a free night and other benefits, geographic coverage and number of hotels.

gkarp@tribpub.com