Airlines improve service to third-best in 20 years in annual survey

Airlines turned in their third-best performance in the past 20 years, the co-author of an annual airline quality report said.

Dean Headley, a Wichita State University associate professor of marketing and co-author of the 2010 Airline Quality Rating report, attributed the improvements to airlines reducing flights in response to the economy.

"Whenever the system tends to reduce the number of airplanes that are flying around, it gets better," Headley said.

The report, which Headley writes with Purdue University professor Brent Bowen, rates 18 U.S. airlines in four categories: on-time arrivals, mishandled baggage, customer complaints and involuntary denied boardings.

The report is being released today and will include airline rankings.

Three of the four categories in the report showed improvement. Denied boardings was the only category in which performance declined.

The most common customer complaints had to do with flight problems and baggage, the report showed.

"Generally speaking, people are happy," Headley said.

The biggest improvement was in mishandled baggage, with all 18 airlines improving their scores.

"Baggage handling is better now than it has been for several years," Headley said.

That may be because most airlines now charge for checked bags, he said.

"If they're going to charge you for this, they better do it right," Headley said.

Fourteen of the nation's airlines improved their on-time arrival performance. Nine improved their denied boarding rates, although denied boardings increased overall.

Headley warned that with fewer flights and demand on the upswing, flights are fuller.

That means more challenges for passengers when there's a glitch.

"There's less leeway for error," Headley said. "If it rains or if it snows or there's a mechanical issue on an airplane, they could get stuck in an airport."

If a flight gets canceled, the next airplane won't be able to hold everyone, he said.

So passengers must be more aware of their options.

Headley advises travelers to book flights through a travel agent so there is someone to call for help if there's a problem.

He also advises them to join the frequent flyer program of the airline being used and to carry the phone number.

"Do whatever you can to hedge against being one of the masses, even if that's calling somebody back home to get on the computer," Headley said.