Airline Report: Complaints, Bumped Passengers Rise

Two troubling statistics about airline service in the first quarter showed passengers are paying the price for airlines packing more people onto planes and leaving little wiggle room in their schedules.

The Department of Transportation said complaints about airline service in the first quarter jumped 17.1 percent. At the same time, the rate of passengers being bumped, or involuntarily denied boarding, increased to 1.06 passengers per every 10,000 flying.

Complaints and Bumping Trending Higher

The latest statistics continue a trend for U.S. based airlines of bumping more passengers as they cut their capacity.

In 2011, the industry bumped 0.78 passengers per 10,000 travelers. Last year, the rate edged higher to .97 passengers bumped.

While the rate seems low, those who track the industry noted involuntary denied boardings are becoming more common and are growing into a larger issue for airlines. Carriers looking to maximize a profit have long made it a practice to oversell flights. They say the overbooking of flights is necessary because a certain percentage of flyers cancel trips or change their travel plans at the last minute.

Airlines say they can't afford to waste potential revenue and leave seats empty, so they overbook flights. As carriers have cut their schedules and shifted to smaller planes for many routes, they have little wiggle room when flights are cancelled due to weather, mechanical problems, or other last minute issues.

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The bottom line: there are often more people booked than seats available.

Meanwhile, customer complaints about airline service are also trending higher. In 2011, the Department of Transportation recorded 1.19 complaints per 100,000 passengers. Last year, the rate of complaints jumped to 1.43 per 100,000 passengers.

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March on-time arrivals slip

The Department of Transportation also reported March on-time arrivals edged lower compared to a year ago. In March, 79.8 percent of flights were on-time, down 2.4 percent from March of 2012.

Highest On-Time Arrival Rates:

1. Hawaiian Airlines – 91.0 percent

2. Virgin America – 87.3 percent

3. Alaska Airlines – 85.5 percent

Lowest On-Time Arrival Rates:

1. ExpressJet Airlines – 71.6 percent

2. JetBlue Airways – 72.3 percent

3. Frontier Airlines – 74.0 percent

Source: Department of Transportation

Luggage being loaded on to a jet at Long Island MacArthur Islip airport.
Getty Images
Luggage being loaded on to a jet at Long Island MacArthur Islip airport.

Finally, there is mixed news regarding airlines mishandling bags.

In March, the industry showed a slight improvement of mishandling 3.05 bags per 1,000 passengers.

However, in the first quarter, airlines posted a worse record, mishandling 3.15 bags compared to 3.01 per 1,000 passengers in the first quarter of 2012.

The news comes one day after reports U.S. airlines brought in record bag fees last year. The countries top 15 airlines took in $3.5 Billion in bag fees in 2012, an increase of 3.8.

(Read More: Why Sky-High Airfares Aren't as Pricey as They Seem)

By CNBC's Phil LeBeau; Follow him on Twitter: @Lebeaucarnews