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Complaints about airlines have soared in 2015: U.S. agency

A United Airlines worker checks computers in their counters at the Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, July 8, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Jeffrey Dastin

Aug 11 (Reuters) - Complaints about airline service grew during the first half of this year as consumers reported more concerns about airfares, according to a report released Tuesday by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The report said the U.S. Transportation Department received 9,542 complaints about U.S. airlines, foreign carriers and others in the travel industry from January to June 2015, a 20.3 percent rise from a year earlier. Complaints nearly tripled to 870 about fare levels and about the information carriers provide on fares during booking, marking the largest jump.

Some travelers have expressed frustration as airlines increasingly profit from fees for checked baggage, reservation changes and other ancillary services. The latest data from the bureau shows that revenue from baggage fees grew more than 9 percent in the first quarter to nearly $864 million compared to the prior year.

United Continental Holdings Inc's chief executive said last month that the fees are here to stay, and JetBlue Airways Corp has for the first time begun charging its lowest-fare customers if they check a bag.

Fare complaints comprised just a drop in the bucket, though, compared to complaints on flight cancellations, delays and misconnections, which numbered at 3,107 in the first half of 2015, versus 2,702 a year earlier.

"Flying remains a bargain, as evidenced by the record number of people traveling this summer," Airlines for America, the trade group representing the largest U.S. airlines, said in a statement. The "report showcases the fact that airlines are improving on delivery of what customers want most: flights that arrive safely and on time, with their bags properly handled."

The country's largest airlines posted on-time arrival rates of 74.8 percent in June, up from 71.8 percent a year earlier, the bureau said. The rate of mishandled baggage fell to 3.52 per 1,000 passengers in the first half of 2015, versus 3.84 a year earlier.

Airlines for America said its members' domestic fares were down 5.5 percent in June compared to the prior year.

Some consumer advocates say a lack of transparency into ancillary fees, which cannot easily be compared across airlines when booking on travel websites, concerns them more than the fees themselves.

"People are becoming more aware of the fact that airfares are just becoming indecipherable," Charlie Leocha, chairman of consumer advocacy group Travelers United, said of the report. "At a certain point the patience of the American public starts to wear thin."


(Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in New York)