April 7, 2014

Virgin America tops airline quality rankings; American Eagle finishes at bottom

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to correct the name of Virgin America.

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to correct the name of Virgin America.

Performance of the nation’s airlines in 2013 was the highest since 1991, but just barely, the latest Airline Quality Rating study shows.

The 24th annual rating was released Monday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The airlines were graded in the following areas: the number of complaints, on-time arrivals, denied boardings and mishandled bags.

The industry showed improvement although the airlines had more late flights and more lost bags.

That’s because the number of consumer complaints fell 15 percent, a dramatic improvement over the year before. And the number of denied boardings also improved, meaning fewer passengers were bumped from overbooked flights.

The annual ratings use a weighted average formula to come up with the results, said Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co-author of the report.

Using that formula, “technically, it’s the best year ever,” Headley said. “We’ve had three really good years of performance. That’s good for the consumer.”

Of the 15 carriers rated for performance in 2012 and 2013, eight airlines improved, while six airlines declined. One, Endeavor, formerly Pinnacle, is new to the rankings.

The Airline Quality Rating is a joint research project of WSU and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.

In addition to 2013 being the best year ever, the strong performance by Delta Air Lines shows that a large, merged airline is able to compete with the best performing smaller airline, Headley said.

“Bigger hasn’t always been better,” Headley said in a statement. “In Delta’s case, we are seeing a large airline perform at levels usually only seen by smaller low-fare carriers.”

He also said airlines have been able to benefit from consolidation and by limiting capacity – eliminating flights to make their operations more cost efficient.

“When you look at the past 14 years, you find that the airline industry performs most efficiently when the system isn’t stressed by high passenger volume and high number of airplanes in the air,” Headley said. “With continued capacity limits and consolidation, one would hope that a less congested system would perform better.”

Although the performance ratings of airlines are higher, that doesn’t translate to happy customers, Brent Bowen, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle said in a statement.

It’s time to begin a new focus on serving travelers and expanding customer service, Bowen said.

“These results show that airlines that intend to do better, are doing something and improving,” he said. “Those losing focus have declined.”

Passengers should be informed and alarmed about the looming pilot shortage created by new rules on training and the personnel crisis in air traffic control because of changes in the rules on hiring, which eliminate some of the more qualified applicants, Bowen said.

The 2013 Airline Quality Rating showed that the total number of complaints about the nation’s 15 airlines dropped 15 percent last year over the previous year and airlines improved in the number of times they overbooked flights.

But the number of mishandled bags increased and flights were late more often last year than in 2012.

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