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A Washington Post article says:

2020 has been a year like no other for travel complaints. Air travelers deluged the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) with grievances, mostly related to refunds during the pandemic. From January to August, the DOT received 95,213 complaints, the highest number in its history. (The previous annual record, 44,845 complaints, was set in 1987.)

Given that the amount of travel generally increases each year, which I would think would cause the number of travel-related complaints to also generally increase each year, I'm surprised the previous record for travel complaints was set in 1987. I would have expected it to be much more recent than that. Did anything happen in 1987 that caused a large number of travel complaints to be lodged? (In 1986, only 12,741 complaints were lodged.)

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    Predators have invaded earth in 1987. – Nean Der Thal Dec 7 '20 at 17:43
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    I’m voting to close this question because it does not appear to be a current problem related to travel. It might be suitable on History.SE. – choster Dec 7 '20 at 23:39
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    @choster It is on topic since the [history] tag allows "Travel-related questions about either the history of traveling..." – pacoverflow Dec 8 '20 at 0:00
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    @pacoverflow What is on-topic is not governed by the content of tag excerpts; there has been previous community discussion such as Are historical questions about travel allowed?. Overall, however, the purpose of Stack Exchange is to answer practical, real-world problems, not to tackle indiscriminately any point of intellectual curiosity, and I do not understand how this is a question about travel rather than history. – choster Dec 8 '20 at 3:08
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    I also agree with choster in that tags don't decide what is on-topic, they are simply a way to gather like questions together. For the future, the fact that this question did not get closed as off-topic does not mean, and should not be used, as 'proof that (trivial) questions of a historical nature are allowed.' If there is a desire to allow them again, it should be brought up and discussed in Travel Meta so as to allow the community to achieve consensus. – CGCampbell Dec 8 '20 at 18:23
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The answer appears to be a combination of unrealistic scheduling and a flurry of mergers.

A Travel Weekly article from 2003 (the record low year at that time) gives some clues:

The 2003 decline is even more dramatic when compared with the peak year, 1987, when the DOT received 44,845. That was a year in which on-time problems were rampant, and the DOT determined many carriers were publishing unrealistic schedules. Airline mergers also had caused consumer problems that year, a DOT spokesman said.

As an aside, it is worth noting that US air traffic in 1987 was only about half of what it is today, meaning that 1987 had a particularly high "per capita" complaint rate.

Unrealistic scheduling

Concerning details on the unrealistic scheduling, this GAO report from 1990 provides details:

DOT’s investigation of airline scheduling practices during 1986 and 1987 resulted in the on-time reporting requirement. At that time, DOT found that airlines often scheduled unrealistic flying times because the computerized reservation systems used by travel agents gave priority listings to flights with the shortest elapsed time. Travel agents usually book passengers on one of the flights that appear on the first few display screens of a reservation system. Flights with longer scheduled elapsed times would appear on subsequent screens and agents would be less likely to book these flights. DOT officials concluded that unrealistic scheduling was an unfair and deceptive trade practice. In August 1987, they obtained a commitment from the computerized reservation system vendors to stop listing flights in the order of scheduled elapsed times. This eliminated an incentive for airlines to underestimate flight times.

In September 1987, DOT began recording the on-time performance of U.S. airlines to provide consumers with information on airline flight timeliness.

Later in the report, the GAO report notes that "on-time performance was lowest in December 1987, when 66 percent of flights were on time." For comparison, the on-time performance in December 2019 was 78%.

It may also be worth noting that the airlines had moved to a hub-and-spoke system over the 5–10 years prior as a result of airline deregulation, rather than the older point-to-point system. I would speculate that this caused more travelers to end up taking connecting flights, and these travelers were more exposed to major hassles when flights were delayed or luggage was mishandled.

So many mergers

For further details on the mergers, we can look at this page, which notes that the major carriers acquired ten (!) smaller airlines in about a one-year period around 1987:

  • Northwest merged with Republic Airlines in October 1986
  • TWA merged with Ozark Air in October 1986
  • Delta merged with Western Airlines in December 1986
  • Alaska merged with Horizon Air in December 1986, and with Jet America in October 1987
  • Continental merged with People Express, New York Air, and Frontier Airlines in February 1987
  • American merged with AirCal in May 1987
  • US Air merged with Pacific Southwest Airlines in October 1987

The logistical challenges of merging airlines often lead to a higher level of mishaps and delays.

Note that "Frontier Airlines" above does not refer to the current airline, but an earlier airline of the same name.

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    I wonder why the number of complaints in 1987 was 250% higher than in 1986, given that the unrealistic scheduling and mergers should have also impacted 1986. – pacoverflow Dec 8 '20 at 16:47
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    @pacoverflow - well, the 1986 mergers were mostly in the last quarter, so problems might not have occurred instantly. – Jon Custer Dec 8 '20 at 18:54
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    Also, complaints to the DOT presumably often don’t come immediately, but only once the customer has reached an impasse with the airline/travel agent, so often not until a few months after the actual travel took place. (I’m guessing here based on other locations.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 9 '20 at 1:50

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