These Major Carriers Gained Altitude in 2012

UnitedAirlines_B777-222_N775UA_22_5503The Airline Quality Rating report — the foremost statistical study of major airline performance in the United States, which has been conducted annually since 1991 — showed that the 14 leading carriers in 2012 posted results on par with their best year ever, which was 2011. The study, authored by Wichita State University professor Dean Headley and Purdue University professor Brent Bowen, interprets data that airlines are mandated by law to report to the U.S. Department of Transportation for each 12-month period, and focuses on four criteria: customer complaints, on-time arrivals, denied boardings, and mishandled bags.

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Overall, as Reuters reported, the industry improved in two of those key measures, on-time arrivals and baggage handling, while involuntary denied boardings and customer complaints showed slightly poorer results than reported in the previous year. Customer complaints per 100,000 grew from 1.19 in 2011 to 1.43 in 2013.

“Every time there are more planes in the sky and more people flying, airline performance suffers,” said Headley, according to the publication. He noted that airlines are arriving on time more often and losing fewer bags as a result of reductions in seat capacity and fewer flights in the air. “When the system gets taxed by volume, things start to fracture and they go bad,” he said. “But the system is a little simpler now.”

Here’s a look at how major airlines in the United States performed last year:

Virgin America, the privately owned airline founded by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson in 2007, came in at number one. After only five years in operations, the carrier set the bar for timely arrivals, baggage handling, and customer service. This marks the first time it has been included in the AQR ratings. In particular, Virgin America boasted the best baggage handling rate, mishandling only 0.87 bags per every 1,000 passengers. For comparison, AMR’s (AAMRQ.PK) American Eagle, which had the worst results in that gauge, mishandled 5.80 bags per 1,000 passengers…

While Branson’s airline had 1.50 customer complaints per 1,000 fliers, above the industry average of 1.43, 83.5 percent of all its flights arrived on time, just above the industry average of 81.8 percent. The slightly high figure in the customer complaint category was typical, according to Headley, because full-price and premium airlines like Virgin tend to attract more complaints than low-cost economy carriers. Southwest (NYSE:LUV) led the 14 ranked carriers in terms of customer complaints, with just 0.25 per 1,000 passengers.

The second-ranked airline in terms of overall quality was JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU), a low-cost airline. The study showed that the carrier posted better than average performances in on-time arrivals, mishandled bags, and customer complaints.

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Southwest’s AirTran was ranked third, and Delta Airlines (NYSE:DAL) and Hawaiian Holdings’ (NASDAQ:HA) Hawaiian Airlines followed. Hawaiian Airlines was the best carrier at sticking to schedules, with 93.4 percent of its flights on time, while American Airlines was the worst, according to the study. The two worst performers in the category were on time just 76.9 percent of the time.

Of the 14 ranked carriers, United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) came in last place, falling below average in all four measured criteria with these results: 77.4 percent on-time arrivals, 3.87 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers, 4.24 customer complaints per 1,000 passengers, and 1.83 denied boardings per 1,000 passengers.

The worst-ever year for performance quality was 2007. But Headley believes that passengers still do not enjoy their flights often enough. “People are still disgruntled,” he told Forbes.

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