Annual quality survey shows airline performance improved in 2011

Although air travel has gotten “more intense,” with full flights and overbookings, performance of the nation’s top 15 airlines is improving, said the co-author of the annual Airline Quality Rating, which ranks the nation’s airlines.

Their on-time performance, number of bags lost, involuntary denied boardings and complaints improved slightly overall in 2011.

“At least it’s going in the right direction,” said Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University’s Frank Barton School of Business.

At the same time, air travel is stressful.

“There’s no room for error,” Headley said.

Flights are full, so when weather hits or there’s a problem, it’s difficult for the airlines to rebook all the passengers.

Headley and Brent Bowen, professor and head of Purdue University’s Department of Aviation Technology, are co-authors of the 22nd annual rating, released today.

The rating assigns weights to the four criteria and uses data reported by the airlines to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Seven airlines improved their on-time performance in 2011, and seven had on-time arrivals more than 80 percent of the time. Ten airlines improved their denied-boardings rate. American Eagle showed the most improvement, while Atlantic Southeast showed the biggest decline. Seven airlines improved their mishandled baggage rate, and five airlines improved their customer complaint rates.

The majority of complaints to the Department of Transportation were for flight problems, baggage, customer service, and reservations, ticketing and boarding.

While flying has become more stressful, the chances of an airline “being on time with your bags and with a no hassle or a pleasant experience are better,” Headley said. “That’s a good message.”

The airlines seem to have renewed their interest in making sure the consumer has a good experience, he said.

Still, airlines still need to generate revenue, and are doing so at all costs in what Headley calls a “nickel and dime” environment.

Flyers must be alert and diligent.

“You’ve got to know the tricks,” he said. “It’s become a battle. If it goes well, consider yourself lucky.”

He suggests booking travel with an aggressive travel agent who knows your travel needs and who, if things go wrong, will act as your advocate with your airline.

He also suggests having phone numbers of the airline and rental car company handy.

That way, if your flight is canceled or there’s a problem, you can call right away to get rerouted.

In addition, he warns passengers not to yell or get nasty with airline employees.

“It’s amazing to hear what some people get themselves into,” Headley said. “One thing you never want to do with an airline is get them mad, because they get even. You’ll never win.”

Of all the airlines rated, Hawaiian Airlines turned in the best on-time performance last year at 92.8 percent; Jet Blue had the worst at 73.3 percent.

Jet Blue had the lowest number of involuntary denied boardings at 0.01 per 10,000 passengers, while Mesa Airlines had the highest at 2.27 per 10,000 passengers.

AirTran Airways had the best baggage handling rate at 1.63 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers, while American Eagle had the worst with 7.32 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. That rate is more than double the industry average of 3.35.

Southwest Airlines had the lowest number of complaints, at 0.32 complaints per 100,000 passengers, while United Airlines had the highest at 2.21 per 100,000 passengers.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle