A study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of complaints made to the U.S. Department of Transportation from 2002 to 2012 found passengers of low-cost upstarts tend to complain less even though the quality of service may be the same as more expensive airlines.
Regardless of the type of service failure -- a bag lost in transit, a flight delayed or canceled, or an overbooked plane -- passengers complained up to 10 times more often about network carriers than low-cost carriers, study author Michael Wittman, a graduate student in MIT's International Center for Air Transportation, said.
Several factors may help to explain the discrepancy, he said: Passengers of low-cost carriers may not be aware of the option to complain to the federal government, or expectations of service quality may be lower for cheaper flights.
Wittman charted the performance of 14 major airlines in 12 categories of service failures over a decade.
"For network carriers, this is an opportunity to improve, because they can say, 'Operationally, we're really not doing any worse than the other carriers, but some of our customers don't like us as much, so what can we do to help solve those problems?'" he said.
Wittman says his study addresses a very practical question: Are customers who complain less likely to fly that airline in the future? While it's too early to tell, he said, he suspects the answer comes down to the lowest fare.
"There's research that suggests people's expectations about service quality depend on how much they paid for their ticket," he said.