Hawaiian, AirTran lead in airline quality study

Hawaiian Airlines ranked first in an annual quality study of the nation's 18 major airlines, with AirTran Airways coming in second.

American Eagle came in last.

The Airline Quality Rating study ranks airlines in four categories: on-time performance, denied boardings, mishandled baggage and customer complaints to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The report is done by Wichita State University associate professor of marketing Dean Headley and Purdue University professor Brent Bowen.

Hawaiian Airlines had the best overall score, the second consecutive year it has come in first. It ranked first in on-time performance and had the second-lowest denied boardings and mishandled baggage rates.

AirTran Airways, which serves Wichita, had the lowest number of mishandled bags. The airline has ranked in the top three for the past six years.

Sixteen airlines improved their scores last year.

The industry score improved in 2009 over the prior year because of overall improvements in on-time arrivals, mishandled bags and fewer customer complaints.

Involuntary denied boardings, meanwhile, increased from the prior year.

"So they're on the right track in getting better," Headley said.

Airlines have adjusted to lower demand and have taken airplanes out of service.

"As that happens and they simplify the system, performance goes up," he said.

So as fewer seats are available, airline quality improves. It's also the reason, however, that denied boardings increase.

"If there are fewer seats and volume kind of gets out of whack, why, people are not going to be able to find a seat sometimes," Headley said.

As demand comes back and more people fly, however, airlines may add more airplanes back in the system.

When that happens, performance will likely decline again.

In addition, nearly all of the airlines that serve the U.S. are in or will be in labor negotiations within the next two years, he said. That could lead to work slowdowns, he said.

"The union action is kind of the big thing to watch," Headley said.