airlines struggled back from COVID customer complaints

airlines struggled back from COVID, customer complaints, delays soared, report finds. As the volume of passenger traffic dropped at airports due to the coronavirus pandemic, traveler complaints about airlines and airport delays increased, said a report released Thursday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

And when it came to “punctuality,” Newark Liberty International Airport was near the bottom of 16 U.S. airports surveyed by the reports authors.

Getting cash refunds for canceled flights seems to be the biggest traveler complaint, especially after staffing shortages caused thousands of flight cancelations starting this summer, the report said.

Among the reports findings:

More than 34,000 airline passengers were angry enough about their experiences to file formal complaints with the DOT in 2021 through August. May 2020 saw the highest with 21,951 complaints filed.

Sporadic mass cancellations by airlines are happening more frequently. In November, American Airlines, the nation’s largest carrier, canceled more than 2,000 flights over several days.

In October, Southwest Airlines, the nation’s second largest, canceled more than 2,000 flights in one weekend. During the summer, Spirit Airlines canceled nearly 3,000 flights during an 11-day period.

Hundreds of thousands of consumers are still trying to get $10 billion in refunds for flights canceled last year, with many airlines declining to make cash refunds and offering tickets or credit instead.

Refunds are the most common customer issue, generating 107,781 complaints April 2020 through August 2021, which is the latest data available, the report said. Typically airlines offer vouchers or credits toward future flights and not cash.

The report and airlines blamed labor shortages for the cancellations. But USPIRG took the industry to task for employee layoffs and early retirement buyouts, which also thinned the ranks.

The industry had 407,965 employees in August, which was down 10% or 40,295 workers from March 2020 when the pandemic hit. That was despite about $50 billion in federal COVID-19 bailouts the airline industry received.

Newark was the worst airport of the 16 looked at with 74% of flights leaving on time between January 2016 and August 2021. Seattle–Tacoma International Airport had the best on-time performance at 83%.

The report also graded 10 major airlines for on-time flight arrival between June 2020 and August 2021 and found Delta had the best on time arrival record at 90.5%, followed by Hawaiian at 90.4%, Alaska air at 88%, and Southwest at 85.4% and United, which has a hub at Newark, at 85.2%.

“They are well justified in these complaints. We have a situation where there were unprecedented cancelations by the airlines,” said Paul Hudson, Flyers Rights president. “When they take the money for transportation and default on it, it’s basic common law that they can’t keep the money and that’s what the airlines are doing when they give you a voucher for a flight at a later time that may or may not go.”

The report’s authors examined data of more than 200,000 complaints made since 2016 to the Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection against the airline industry and Bureau of Transportation Statistics data about flight departures and arrivals starting in January 2016.

“It’s a good report because this information isn’t new, it’s come out in dribs and drabs, but it’s a comprehensive report that could be useful in congressional hearings,” he said. “COVID wasn’t of their (airlines) making, but their reaction was. These were decisions made by airline executives.”

Flyers Rights, which has 60,000 members, asked for strings to be put on federal COVID aid to the airline industry, but no conditions were put on the aid, Hudson said.

Delays, especially in the New Jersey-New York region, are due to restrictions in runways and airspace that hamper expansion, Hudson said.

“Anyone who drives by Newark airport can see the line up of planes as far as the eye can see,” he said. “The only answer is they need a fourth airport in New York metro region.”

Airlines4America, representing seven airlines, refuted some of the report’s contentions.

“A4A member carriers comply with all federal laws and regulations regarding cash refunds. Since the onset of the pandemic, U.S. carriers have issued approximately $20 billion in cash refunds,” said Jamie Gleklen, a spokesman.

He cited a steep drop off in complaints to the U.S. DOT as evidence that in the first three quarters of 2021, U.S. airlines issued 3.5% more cash refunds than in the same period of 2019, despite generating 46% less passenger revenue.

“Throughout the pandemic, carriers have updated travel policies – including the elimination of change fees, to offer increased flexibility for customers,” Gleklen said. “They are committed to working with each customer to address their individual circumstances.”

The Omicron variant of Covid-19 appears to be reinfecting people at three times the rate of previous strains, experts in South Africa have said, as public health officials and scientists from around the world closely monitor developments in the country where it was first identified.

As the EU’s public health agency warned that Omicron could cause more than half of all new Covid infections in Europe within the next few months, evidence was emerging, however, that vaccines still appear to offer protection against serious illness.

According to new evidence collected in South Africa by its National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) the latest epidemiological evidence suggests that Omicron can evade immunity from infection with earlier variants and is causing reinfections at three times previous rates.

The South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis along with the NICD said the latest findings “provide epidemiological evidence for Omicron’s ability to evade immunity from prior infection”.

“We believe that previous infection does not provide protection from Omicron,” said Anne von Gottberg, an expert at the NICD.

In mid-November South Africa was reporting about 300 Covid cases a day. On Wednesday, it reported 8,561 new cases, up from 4,373 the day before and 2,273 on Monday.

Outlining early research into the newly emerged variant, Von Gottberg said doctors were seeing “an increase for Omicron reinfections [of Covid-19]”.

She said: “We believe the number of cases will increase exponentially in all provinces of the country. We believe that vaccines will still, however, protect against severe disease. Vaccines have always held out to protect against serious disease, hospitalisations and death.

One adult and two minors face a handful of charges after Holbrook police accused them of leading officers on a foot pursuit after crashing a stolen car stuffed with Amazon packages.

Police charged Romulald Bernard, 18, of Randolph, with failing to stop at a stop sign; failure to stop for police; receiving stolen property; leaving the scene of an accident or property damage; operating to endanger; and marked lanes violation. Two males, aged 16 and 17, were charged with receiving stolen property. Police did not release their names due to their ages.

Officers made the arrests after responding at about 10 a.m. to a single-vehicle crash near 300 South Franklin St., where a Toyota Camry — stuffed with several stolen packages in the trunk — had slammed into a brick wall outside a home under construction. The occupants fled toward Longmeadow Drive, police said. WCVB reported that the car was full of Amazon packages, which police said they’ll return to the right people.

Assisted by Massachusetts state troopers and the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department, officers found and arrested the two juveniles near a Longmeadow Drive apartment complex before locating Bernard in nearby woods.

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