The nation’s airlines had a better year in 2014, but the airlines’ passengers did not.
Customer complaints about mishandled luggage and problems with boarding increased for U.S. airlines in 2014, according to a new study, while the percentage of on-time arrivals fell.
Those were the partial findings of the 2015 Airline Quality Rating report. The full report will be released at a news conference Monday morning at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co-author of the report, said the most marked change between 2013 and 2014 was the rate of increase in customer complaints to the federal Department of Transportation, from which the report’s data are drawn.
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The rate of customer complaints increased 22 percent, from 1.13 customer complaints per 100,000 passengers in 2013 to 1.38 customer complaints per 100,000 passengers in 2014. That, Headley said, qualifies as “a dramatic increase.”
The report said the top four areas of complaints were:
▪ Flight problems, including cancellations and delays (37.8 percent)
▪ Baggage (14.3 percent)
▪ Reservations, ticketing and boarding (11.3 percent)
▪ Customer service (10.6 percent)
The rate of mishandled baggage increased 13 percent over the 12-month period – from 3.21 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers in 2013 to 3.62 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers in 2014, the report said.
There also were more complaints about denied boardings – usually a result of overbooking flights. That rate edged from 0.89 denied boardings per 10,000 passengers in 2013 to 0.92 in 2014.
U.S. airlines’ planes were also less likely to arrive at their destinations on time last year. The industry’s on-time arrival percentage decreased 2.2 percent year-over-year to 76.2 percent in 2014, the report said.
The report, which rates the nation’s top 12 airlines, is co-authored by Headley and Brent Bowen, professor and dean at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. At Monday’s news conferece, they will discuss the report’s full findings and reveal individual airline rankings.
Headley said the decline in the industry’s on-time arrivals and mishandled bags are “two decent reasons for an increase in (customer) complaints.”
“That’s going in the wrong direction, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
On-time arrivals aren’t always an airline’s fault, Headley said. Bad weather at an airline’s hub airport can affect its entire flight schedule for a day or more, as can an overtaxed air traffic system or unexpected maintenance issues, he said.
Still, “it’s their aircraft and their scheduling,” Headley said.
The lingering effects of consolidation may explain part of consumers’ growing disgruntlement with airlines. In the past few years, Southwest Airlines bought AirTran Airways, American Airlines and U.S. Airways merged, Delta Air Lines merged with Northwest Airlines, and Continental Airlines merged with United Airlines.
When airlines merge, one of the two airlines’ way of doing things – such as service levels, frequent flier programs and flight schedules – will be discontinued.
“Anytime you consolidate, you’re going to make people unhappy about a new way of doing things,” Headley said.
He said in a quarter of a century of preparing the annual report, he has noticed a correlation: When airlines are profitable, their performance ratings tend to decline. That’s generally because during profitable times, airlines are busiest, tending to strain their capabilities when it comes to scheduling, handling bags, etc.
He said he saw the same correlations between 1999 and 2000 and in 2007.
The International Air Transport Association said the airline industry was expected to post a global net profit of $25 billion in 2015 after posting profit of $19.9 billion in 2014.
In North America, it said 2014 after-tax profits of $13.2 billion were expected this year, following $11.9 billion in after-tax profits in 2014. The association attributed the increases in profit internationally and in North America to lower oil prices, increases in gross domestic product, consolidation and higher passenger load factors.
It’s “the one kind of constant I’ve seen over the years,” Headley said of the correlation between higher airline profitability and declines in quality performance.
Rating the industry
The full 2015 Airline Quality Rating report examines the performance of the following airlines:
▪ Envoy/American Eagle
▪ Jet Blue
▪ Virgin America