Spirit Airlines, the dominant carrier at Atlantic City International Airport, generated the most passenger complaints among the nation’s major airlines over the past five years, according to a new report by a New Jersey-based consumer group.

Other “most-complained about” airlines include Frontier Airlines and United Airlines, two other carriers that have a major presence in New Jersey, the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group said Friday. Frontier recently made Trenton-Mercer Airport its East Coast base, while United launched new service to Atlantic City from Chicago and Houston on April 1, in addition to using Newark Liberty International Airport as a hub.

“New Jersey fliers should take note: United Airlines was one of the most-complained about airlines every year of the study,” Jen Kim, director of NJPIRG’s Law & Policy Center, said in a statement. “And Frontier Airlines saw a big spike in complaints in 2013, the year it began service out of the Trenton airport.”

NJPIRG’s report analyzed passenger complaints made to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Consumer Protection Division about major airlines from 2009-2013. The data included such things as delayed or canceled flights, lost luggage, poor customer service and ticketing problems.

The airline that generated the most complaints per 100,000 passengers was Spirit, the NJPIRG said. Spirit had about three times more complaints per passenger than any other airline. Frontier, United and American Airlines also ranked high in complaints, the report found.

Airlines generating the fewest complaints over the same five-year span were Southwest, Alaska Airlines, AirTran Airways and JetBlue.

Spirit, a discount airline, offers low base fares but also adds to its prices by charging for such things as food, seat selection and baggage. Spirit spokeswoman DeAnne Gabel said the airline is working to reduce complaints by helping customers to better understand its pricing practices.

“Spirit is committed to delivering the lowest base and total fare to our customers. We are focused on giving our customers a great value every time they fly Spirit. Many of the DOT complaints about Spirit are driven by our customers not fully understanding that we offer unbundled fares that let them control how much they spend,” Gabel said.

Gabel said that in 2013, Spirit had a total of 1,021 DOT complaints while flying more than 12 million passengers.

“While we want every customer to have a great experience, eight complaints per 100,000 enplanements is a pretty small number,” she said. “2014 is Spirit’s ‘Year of the Customer’ and we are working every day to reduce complaints by helping customers learn about how to fly Spirit to go where they want and keep more money in their pocket.”

NJPIRG, however, argued that Spirit, other airlines and the DOT must do more to improve customer service. The group made several recommendations to the DOT, including establishing a searchable public database in addition to filing monthly reports on passenger complaints.

“When airlines cut corners, it causes all sorts of headaches for passengers,” Kim said. “These complaints show that the airlines and policymakers should act to improve service.”

Contact Donald Wittkowski:

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