Hard-pressed airlines try to improve quality

15 largest U.S. carriers show improvements in basic performance measures, according to latest Airline Quality Rating report

When it comes to on-time performance, baggage handling, and fewer customer complaints and overbooked flights, U.S. airlines are performing at their highest level in at least 22 years, according to a study released today. And discount carriers, such as AirTran, Hawaiian and JetBlue led the industry on those basic measures, as they did the previous year.

The latest Airline Quality Rating, a joint project of researchers at Purdue University and Wichita State University, shows America’s 15 largest airlines on average improved in 2011 in all four of those objective performance categories compared with the previous year.

“In the two decades we’ve tracked airline quality, 2011 was the best year ever,” said Brent Bowen, head of the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University and one of the authors of the study.

The results might be a shock to the flying public, many of whom are weary of mediocre service, cramped seating in coach class and being nickeled and dimed for checked bags and onboard meals. Indeed, a survey of frequent fliers to be released this week by the same researchers shows just 11 percent of fliers think the airlines are improving.

Why the disconnect between actual performance and what fliers are feeling?

“Performance versus perception,” Bowen said. “That’s a challenge to the industry.”

Airlines are doing better on basic performance measures, which are based on data reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Researchers use four measures: on-time arrival, which improved to 80 percent in 2011 from 79.8 percent in 2010; denied boardings, which improved to 0.78 per 10,000 passengers from 1.08; mishandled bags, down to 3.35 per 1,000 from 3.49; and customer complaints, which dropped to 1.19 per 10,000 passengers from 1.22.

The top 15 airlines as a group had the highest ratings since the annual research began in 1991. However, ratings don’t necessarily reflect the total quality of the flying experience. If, for example, a bare-bones airline gets you to your destination on time and doesn’t lose your bag, it doesn’t mean the experience was pleasurable.

Still, Bowen argues, if an airline performs well on such basic measures, it can often correlate to a better flight.

“You’re more likely to encounter a more consumer-friendly experience if they are performing well on the metrics,” Bowen said. “With the higher-ranked airlines, you should have a better onboard experience.”

Again in 2011, discount airlines performed best, taking the top five slots in the rankings. One explanation is that low-cost carriers might receive fewer complaints because passengers have lower expectations because they paid less and they might be less likely to complain, Bowen said.

— United Airlines ranked 12th of 15 airlines, and its overall score worsened, although its ranking remained the same. United’s on-time arrival performance declined and mishandled baggage rate increased. It had more customer complaints. Its lone area of improvement was a better denied boarding rate.

— Continental Airlines, now combined with United Airlines, posted gains in just one of the four criteria, denied boardings. It slipped on the other three measures. It rated lower overall than in 2010, and its overall ranking dropped from eighth to 11th.

— American Airlines improved slightly and its ranking improved a spot from 11th to 10th. The improvement came in mishandled baggage performance. It had poorer performance for on-time arrivals, denied boardings and customer complaints.

— Southwest posted the best customer complaint rate in the industry and improved its on-time arrival rate and denied boarding rate. The rate for mishandled bags was slightly worse. It’s overall rating improved, but its ranking dropped from fifth to seventh.

Interesting to watch in coming years will be the effect of mergers, namely United Airlines with Continental Airlines and Southwest Airlines with AirTran Airways. Merged airlines usually don’t fare well in the ratings, Bowen said.

“With rare exception, they always go down,” he said.

The industrywide improvement in ratings for 2011 can be attributed largely to a huge drop in denied boardings, more commonly known as being “bumped” from a flight. Denied boardings dropped by one-third, a huge one-year move, Bowen said.

“This is a dramatic improvement, which, quite frankly, indicated a systemic improvement, that the airlines are getting this overbooking and involuntary bumping down to a minimum,” he said.

Bowen said the study didn’t attempt to find the reason for fewer bumpings, but it probably has to do with better “computational systems” that airlines use to plan and manage their bookings.

“Anecdotally, management of airlines is paying more attention to the numbers on performance,” Bowen said.

Better numbers on lost baggage might not be due to better handling of suitcases. Instead, it probably results from fewer passengers checking bags, which now means a fee with most airlines. Fewer bags being checked means fewer bags being lost.

Separately, the same researchers will for the first time release results of a survey of more than 4,000 frequent fliers. Among the findings are that consumers perceive Southwest Airlines to be the best airline by far, even among those who don’t fly that airline.

And, not surprisingly, consumers are overwhelmingly opposed to the continuing move by airlines to impose a la carte fees, such as for checked bags. Even so, fees for carry-on luggage are probably next, Bowen predicted.

“It’s as inevitable and as probable as paying more for a window or aisle seat,” he said. “Consumers hate it.”

Among other findings for 2011 performance:

— Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance, 92.8 percent.

— JetBlue had the worst on-time performance, 73.3 percent, but the lowest involuntary denied-boardings rate.

— Frontier had the largest improvement in overall score, while Continental and Mesa had the largest
decline in score.

— AirTran had the best baggage handling rate.

— American Eagle had the worst baggage handling rate (7.32 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers) of all airlines. Their rate was more than double the industry rate of 3.35.

-Southwest again had the lowest consumer complaint rate (0.32 per 100,000 passengers) of all airlines.

— United had the highest consumer complaint rate (2.21 per 100,000 passengers) of all airlines rated.

Rankings for 2011 were as follows, with 2010 ranking in parentheses.

1. AirTran (1)
2. Hawaiian (2)
3. JetBlue (3)
4. Frontier (9)
5. Alaska (4)
6. Delta (7)
7. Southwest (5)
8. US Airways (6)
9. SkyWest (10)
10. American (11)
11. Continental (8)
12. United (12)
13. Atlantic Southeast (15)
14. Mesa (13)
15. American Eagle (16)

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