a person with a baby in a terminal

Photo by Alex S.

Southwest Airlines boasts one of the lowest complaint rates among all American airlines. Meanwhile, United Airlines has one of the highest. Is Southwest so on top of their game that passengers can’t find anything to complain about? 

At least according to one metric, that’s not exactly the case. Over the past decade, Southwest and United have had nearly the same baggage mishandle rates. Yet people make formal complaints about United losing their bags five times more often than they do about Southwest.

Complaint Rates and Bag Mishandle Rates at Southwest and United Airlines

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Southwest in orange, United in blue. Source: The Operations Room

And it’s not as if Southwest and United have spectacularly low mishandle rates, either: the two airlines are in the middle of pack among domestic airlines in America. Misplaced or lost baggage is a nightmare situation for travelers, so if an airline messes up, you would think passengers would be outraged enough to file a complaint. But why are they less likely to complain about Southwest, and more likely to write off United?

One possibility is that passengers of discount airlines like Southwest enjoy the discount more than they dislike the service. In a forthcoming paper, Michael Wittman from MIT writes:

“We find that passengers of low-cost carriers like Southwest Airlines are less likely to complain about service quality than passengers of network carriers like American Airlines, given the same levels of service quality and controlling for yearly fixed effects. This behavior could be explained by price-based expectations, lack of information about how to complain to the DOT, or qualitative differences in front-line customer service quality between airlines.”

But the discounted tickets alone can’t fully explain what’s going on. For example, new kid on the block Spirit Airlines offers extremely cheap tickets, so based on these “price-based expectations,” Spirit passengers shouldn’t be complaining much. Yet Spirit leads the industry in complaints. Which doesn’t seem to bother their CEO Ben Baldanza, who recently told NPR:

“We’re not even Wal-Mart. We’re Dollar General. And we like being Dollar General, because we save people lots of money.”

Wittman does, however, mention differing qualities of front-line customer service. This may be a more plausible reason for fewer complaints. As Martin Lariviere of the Kellogg School of Management puts it:

“When your bag doesn’t show up, your immediate recourse is not calling the FAA; it is speaking with an airline employee. If that employee can show a little empathy and try to help, no one will be rushing to call the Feds. Said another way, well designed recovery processes matter and that is true independent of niches the firm targets or how it prices.”

On top of that, Southwest offers some sweet perks. For instance, you can check your first bag for free — JetBlue is the only other airline to offer this. And there’s no $200 flight change fee like there is with Delta. Data from the American Customer Satisfaction Index lends some credibility to this argument: while United has among the lowest customer satisfaction ratings, Southwest has the 2nd-highest (behind JetBlue):

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Data via American Customer Satisfaction Index

So some of the more concrete measures of customer service (bag mishandles, on-time flights, etc.) don’t separate the wheat from the chaff. But it looks like Southwest is winning the perception battle over network carriers like United.

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