GUANGZHOU -- Consumer complaints filed with domestic air carriers in China have risen unusually sharply recently, with 7,000 coming in March alone, a more than tenfold increase from two years earlier, according to aviation industry regulators.
The unprecedented jump in complaints from flyers is traceable to unlimited flight tickets sold by airlines to stimulate demand for air travel, which shriveled during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We demand that airlines clarify their terms of service and offer after-sale services," a senior official with the Civil Aviation Administration of China said, referring to the unlimited passes, at a regular news conference in mid-April.
"We support airlines' innovative service, but will strengthen the management and supervision of [carriers] to protect the interests of passengers," the official said.
The warning follows a spate of consumer headaches in recent months. In 2020, China Southern Airlines, China's largest airline, and other carriers, including China Eastern Airlines, introduced discount tickets one after another, such as offering unlimited weekend flights during a set period for several hundred dollars.
As demand for international flights plunged due to the pandemic, discount tickets were issued to keep domestic flights going. The market for domestic air travel was expected to bounce back fairly quickly.
Unlimited passes had the desired effect, as people took to the air, but also generated complaints: "It's impossible to book flights with unlimited flight tickets," "Flight options have decreased," and "Phone calls cannot get through," are typical of remarks seen on Black Cat Complaint, a website where consumers can vent their frustrations.
China's aviation market is recovering. China Southern Airlines carried 11.84 million passengers in May, double the year-ago figure and just short of the number of passengers flying in May 2019, before COVID-19 became widespread.
As demand for domestic flights picks up, passengers suspect that airlines are cutting back on the number of seats set aside for unlimited passes.
In March, 7,678 complaints were filed with domestic airlines, up from 700 in the same month of 2019, according to the civil aviation authority. Complaints about air tickets accounted for 33% of the total, an increase of about 5 percentage points from two years earlier. Unlimited passes are seen as a major, though not the sole, reason for the sharp increase in complaints.
U.S. carrier American Airlines once issued unlimited first-class passes, hoping to raise revenue quickly, but the campaign backfired as it lost paying passengers. Chinese carriers are increasingly seen as attempting to pass the cost of their own missteps on to customers.
The market chaos triggered by the unlimited passes is likely to subside, as many expired at the end of June. But concerns are growing that other new services launched by carriers may lead to similar problems.
In April, China Eastern Airlines introduced a ticket that lets the holder fly repeatedly, with a fixed amount of credit deducted depending on the distance of the flight. The ticket is said to be less expensive than regular tickets.
Shandong Airlines, a midsize carrier, released a limited number of discount tickets, with destinations determined at random, also in April.
Many airlines see offers aimed at sparking demand for domestic flights as crucial at a time when they must operate a certain number of international flights at a loss. But the programs may have the opposite of their intended effect if they alienate customers.