The Airlines Get Worse, and Traveler Complaints Fall

Travelers wait in line to check-in for flights at O'Hare International Airport Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Fewer flights arrived on time and airlines mishandled more luggage last year, and yet customer complaints declined, according to operational data compiled by aviation researchers.

The annual quality ratings out today come as the U.S. airline industry is putting the finishing touches on its massive consolidation, with American Airlines and US Airways four months into creating the world’s largest carrier. The industry’s on-time arrival rate was 78.4 percent in 2013, down from 81.8 percent the prior year. American Airlines’ regional carrier, American Eagle, was the worst performer in that category—only 72.1 percent of its flights were on schedule. Hawaiian Airlines had the best showing at 93 percent in both 2012 and 2013.

The data used to compile the annual Airline Quality Rating report are culled by researchers at Wichita State University and Arizona’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University from monthly stats airlines file with federal regulators. The ratings use a formula that gives the most weight to flight punctuality, followed by denied boardings, mishandled luggage, and customer complaints. “Someone needs to do this to keep the airlines honest,” says Dean Headley, associate marketing professor at Wichita State’s W. Frank Barton School of Business. “We figure we’re going to poke the bear once a year or so.”

Frontier Airlines, which Republic Airways sold in December to an investor group, had the most customer complaints in 2013, at 3.09 per 100,000 customers, wresting that unwanted position from United. Southwest again had the fewest, at 0.34. American Eagle also had the highest rate of mishandled bags, at 5.9 per 1,000 customers, slightly worse than in 2012, when that airline also was the worst in that category. Virgin America, which plans to float a public stock offer later this year, had the best bag-handling performance, at 0.97.

Headley says that over time, the airlines’ measurable service performance will probably all even out, with the primary differences between the companies coming from on-board amenities and how people perceive the experience they had.

The industry’s largest improvement last year came in the area of denied boardings, where eight carriers got better from 2012. The so-called DB rate dropped to 0.89 per 10,000 travelers from 0.97 in 2012 as airlines improved their overbooking procedures. The two leaders in that category were JetBlue Airways and Virgin America.

In the 2013 ratings, Virgin America ranked first, followed by JetBlue and AirTran, which is now part of Southwest. Delta was fourth; American was 10th. United finished last, beset by a slew of operational woes during its merger integration with Continental.

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