When Statistics Attack: Union Report on Lufthansa Complaint “Spike” is Simply Misleading

One thing that’s certain is that you can make statistics say pretty much whatever you want to get your point across. That’s exactly what the UNITE HERE union is doing with what appears to be a Unite Heresmear campaign against Lufthansa. After talking with the research analyst behind the report, I still can’t figure out why the union is bothering with this.

Earlier this week, I received an email from news@lufthansaalert.org with a report produced by the Lufthansa Traveler Alert site. That site is apparently the new campaign by the UNITE HERE union to make Lufthansa look bad. The report, titled “Customer Complaints Spike at Lufthansa, Decrease at British Airways and Air France,” was six pages of hilarity. See, the union has opted to use percentages despite the incredibly small numbers involved.

As highlighted in the email, there were four key points of the report. As I mentioned, you’ll notice that only percentages are used in all of these. That’s because the numbers are so incredibly small that it’s impossible to actually take them seriously. But when you use percentages, it looks a lot worse. Here are the four points.

Point #1 – Last year, Lufthansa’s total passenger complaints went up 70%. Meanwhile British Airways and Air France both saw decreases in total complaints.
Sounds awful, right? Well let’s use real numbers. In 2010, Lufthansa received a whopping 118 complaints via the DOT versus 68 in 2010. I did a little back of the envelope math and with around 30 flights each way per day between the US and Germany and a 75 percent load factor, Lufthansa serves around 5 million customers in the US in a year.

You think that change in the number of complaints is in any way an indication of a serious issue? I highly doubt it.

Point #2 – Lufthansa customer complaints increased in 2010 in seven of the top eight complaint categories: flight problems, baggage, rescheduling/ticketing, refunds, fares, oversales and disability access.
As you can imagine, since we’re already looking at a tiny sample size, breaking it down into categories makes it even worse. Baggage complaints were highest with 32 for the entire year. That’s up from 22. Next is a tie between Flight Problems and Reservations (not rescheduling as they suggest)/Ticketing/Boarding at 23. Everything else is single digits. Were they up? Sure. But it’s hard to consider this a trend with such a tiny sample size.

Point #3 – When 2006 data is compared with 2010 data, Lufthansa saw a 23% increase in total complaints while British Airways and Air France saw complaints drop by over 30%.
Point #4 – In each of the top four customer complaint categories – flights problems, baggage, ticketing/rescheduling/boarding, and refunds – Lufthansa trended worse than did British Airways and Air France when 2006 and 2010 data are compared.
This is rehashing the exact same thing. In 2006, Lufthansa received 87 complaints. It went down to 84 in 2007, then up to 61 and up to 68 before finally getting to 118 in 2010. What’s to say it’s not just an anomaly? The parting shot in the report tries to address that.

So far in 2011, with just January and February numbers tallied, Lufthansa has had over twice the number of total complaints filed compared to its total in Jan-Feb 2010.

Very convenient that the data was cut off in February. The March numbers have been out for well over a month and this report just came out, so March could have been included. Why wasn’t it? Well, because Lufthansa had only 8 complaints versus 21 the year before. Oops, might as well just leave out any periods that don’t help the cause, right? This is just nuts, but that brings up the biggest question.

Why the heck is the union doing this?

Normally, you would think that the union was looking to sign a better contract or get more people hired to help fix the problem, but that’s really not applicable here. UNITE HERE only represents the North American-based employees at LSG Skychefs, the catering business. So, the union has nothing to gain if Lufthansa made the strange decision to try to rectify these “problems.” None of them seem to have been about catering, so it’s not like the union can claim the airline needs to hire more of its workers to fix the problem. And even though it continues to be in ongoing negotiations with Lufthansa about a new contract, this certainly won’t impact those negotiations at all, at least not positively.

I spoke with the research analyst about the report and he really kept repeating the same two points.

  1. “No comment about negotiations except that they’re ongoing.”
  2. “We believe the data in the report speaks for itself.”

Unfortunately for the union, it’s the lack of data that really speaks volumes. This is just a misleading piece of propaganda that falls flat on its face.

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