Flight delays are down, but refund complaints are still up. Way up.

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The unclogged skies of the pandemic have led to improved on-time performance by major U.S. airlines.
The unclogged skies of the pandemic have led to improved on-time performance by major U.S. airlines. Photo Credit: Denis Belitsky/Shutterstock.com

The unclogged skies of the Covid-19 pandemic have led to a dramatic jump in airline on-time performance during the mid-summer, recently released Department of Transportation data shows.

But in July, five months into the pandemic, obtaining refunds continued to be a major complication for air travelers and their travel advisors.

According to the latest Air Travel Consumer Report from the DOT, the 10 primary mainline U.S. airlines were on time 90.5% of the time in July, compared to just 76.9% in July 2019. The data includes flights operated by Delta, United, Southwest, American, Alaska, Spirit, JetBlue, Frontier, Hawaiian and Allegiant. It also includes flights operated by regional airlines for the United Express, Delta Connections and American Eagle brands, as well as for Alaska and Hawaiian. The DOT defines an on-time flight as one that arrives within 15 minutes of schedule.

The surge in on-time flights this past July was led by Southwest, which was on-time 94.5% of the time, compared with 80.3% a year earlier.

Southwest maintained that performance through August and September, resulting in a 94.4% on-time performance for the third quarter, chief operating officer Mike Van de Ven said during an earnings call last week.

Airline industry performance, however, was much worse during July when it came to providing refunds, DOT data suggests.

During the month, the DOT received 10,257 complaints about refunds compared with just 187 the previous July. Complaints about refunds amounted to more than 90% of the total air travel-related complaints the DOT received in July.

Travel advisors were especially active, recording 1,765 complaints in July compared with just 55 a year earlier.
Refunds became a major issue early in the pandemic, as airlines cancelled up to 90% of their schedules and, cash strapped, sought ways around federal requirements to provide refunds for cancellations when requested.

Those actions led to an April 3 enforcement order issued by the DOT, in which it told airlines that they remained obligated by refund regulations.

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