Airline passenger complaints surge

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Airline passengers are getting grumpier, and it’s little wonder.

Airlines keep shrinking the size of seats to stuff more people onto planes, those empty middle seats that once provided a little more room are now occupied and more people with tickets are being turned away because flights are overbooked.

Private researchers who analyzed federal data on airline performance also said in a report being released today that consumer complaints to the Department of Transportation surged by one-fifth last year even though other measures such as on-time arrivals and mishandled baggage show airlines are doing a better job.

“The way airlines have taken 130-seat airplanes and expanded them to 150 seats to squeeze out more revenue I think is finally catching up with them,” said Dean Headley, a business professor at Wichita State University who has co-written the annual report for 23 years.

“People are saying, ‘Look, I don’t fit here. Do something about this.’ At some point airlines can’t keep shrinking seats to put more people into the same tube,” he said.

The rate at which passengers with tickets were denied seats because planes were full rose to 0.97 denials per 10,000 passengers last year, compared with 0.78 in 2011.

United Airlines had the highest consumer complaint rate of the 14 airlines included in the report, with 4.24 complaints per 100,000 passengers. That was nearly double the airline’s complaint rate the previous year. Southwest had the lowest rate, at 0.25.

Consumer complaints were significantly higher in the peak summer travel months of June, July and August when planes are especially crowded.

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