Government complaints filed in March by consumers against airlines jumped by 347% compared to the previous year, according to newly released data from the Department of Transportation (DOT) concerning the month when the coronavirus pandemic brought travel to a standstill.
The federal agency fielded a total of 5,064 air travel complaints in March 2020, up from 1,132 in March 2019.
As you might expect, given customers' scramble to get money back from suddenly canceled flights, an overwhelming majority of March 2020's airline complaints—64% of the U.S. airlines' total, according to an analysis by travel website The Points Guy—had to do with refunds.
And one U.S. airline racked up significantly more refund complaints than any other.
That would be United Airlines.
The DOT received 640 refund-related complaints about that carrier, far outpacing its biggest rivals, American Airlines (138 refund complaints) and Delta Air Lines (a comparatively respectable 71).
United was also way ahead of Southwest Airlines (119 refund complaints), JetBlue (105), Alaska Airlines (18), and even low-cost competitors such as Frontier Airlines (94) and Spirit Airlines (80).
In its analysis of the figures, The Points Guy names United the "stingiest" of major U.S. carriers due to the numerous adjustments United kept making to its schedule change policy during the toughest days of the pandemic.
Before Covid-19, United would give refunds for flights changed by more than two hours. But, as The Points Guy puts it, "Throughout March and into April, United kept adjusting what time change qualifies for a refund. It went up to 25 hours, then went to an undefined 'significant' change and then finally went down to six hours. UA applied these changes retroactively as well, rankling many customers."
Hence the surge in consumer complaints. And April's numbers, which have not yet been released, are expected to rise even higher.
We've told you before, but it bears repeating: When an airline cancels your flight, you deserve a refund. That's the law.
And when the airline makes things difficult, you should file a complaint—first with the company itself, then, if you don't get satisfactory results, with the federal government. Here's a step-by-step guide to doing that.