Wichita State’s Dean Headley: the man behind the airline rankings

The first time AirTran Airways wound up first in an airline quality ratings report co-authored by Wichita State University’s Dean Headley, the carrier reacted in a big way.

It hung a huge banner at every AirTran gate in the country touting the ranking.

Employees briefly stopped operations to walk out on the tarmac in Atlanta to salute one another.

The report, now in its 22nd year, gets plenty of national attention.

It’s featured by “Good Morning America,” CNN, the “Today” show, C-Span, USA Today, the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal and other national and international news outlets – reaching an audience of roughly 75 million people every year.

Between 50,000 and 60,000 people view the 60-page report online.

“I’m proud to be known for getting this exposure for the university,” Headley said. “I think it carries as much weight as a published refereed article in an academic journal.”

Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University, and Brent Bowen, formerly at WSU and now professor and head of Purdue University’s Department of Aviation Technology, co-author the report.

They use performance data reported by airlines to the Department of Transportation. To come up with the rankings, they use a weighted average to combine performance factors, including mishandled bags, on-time arrivals, denied boardings and customer complaints.

Headley, 64, enjoys measuring service quality and doing research. Bowen’s field is aviation.

“I’ve always been a math guy,” Headley said.

In 1990, Bowen realized no one was using the DOT information to rate airline quality.

“I had the data,” Bowen said. “He (Headley) showed us how to use it.”

The report started as what Bowen calls an “obscure academic research paper.”

It soared to national attention after a Channel 10 reporter did a local story on it. Days later, they were flying to New York for an interview with “Good Morning America.”

They had had no idea it would be so popular.

“We hit the nail on the head, and we didn’t even know we had a nail to hit,” Headley said. “We just happened to have found an extremely hot issue.”

Headley and Bowen have now compiled 21 years of performance data on the airline industry.

“I’m the only one who can tell you how the industry has changed from 1991 to today,” Headley said.

Bowen credits Headley for keeping the traveling public in the forefront.

“That’s one of his strengths,” Bowen said.

Headley is also the reason the report is in its 22nd year.

“He really had the focus and the passion for it,” Bowen said.

The report benefits the flying public, Headley said. Passengers typically pick a flight based on price and schedule, he said. But if all else is equal, “we would hope they would use this to make a choice.”

Airlines also pay attention. In the early years, the airlines would call to complain — vociferously sometimes — if they didn’t like how they ranked.

“But it’s your numbers,” Headley would tell them.

One by one, the airlines began running the numbers themselves with the publicly available data.

In the book “From Worst to First: Behind the Scenes of Continental’s Remarkable Comeback,” then Continental CEO Gordon Bethune credited the airline ratings with a corporate endeavor to improve, Bowen said.

“The founder of Jet Blue said the same thing,” he said.

Since then, “I can’t recall an actual airline complaint,” Bowen said.

Southwest worries

The industry has seen a number of mergers in recent years.

The only recent one to go well is the merger of Delta Air Lines and Northwest, Headley said.

US Airways and America West are still trying to digest each other, he said. And the jury is still out on the United and Continental merger.

Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways will take another two or three years to integrate systems. But that merger was a good idea, Headley said.

“Southwest is a customer favorite,” he said. “They have good pricing; they’re very reliable. They don’t promise a lot, and they deliver it.”

But he is a little worried about Wichita’s service.

AirTran has received revenue guarantees from the city of Wichita, the county and the state to help underwrite losses since it began service here 10 years ago.

“Southwest lives by the bottom line,” he said. “That presents a scary set of issues.”

Wichita has proven it must have a low-cost carrier to get affordable fares. Fares dropped significantly when AirTran came into the market.

Should Southwest decide someday that Wichita’s market is not a good deal, “there is no Plan B,” Headley said.

Most markets need a low-fare carrier to help keep pressure on other carriers to keep prices lower.

But there are no other options of a low-fare carrier to replace that service in Wichita should Southwest pull out, Headley said.

Fares likely would rise.

“I don’t know what we’d do,” he said. “We’re kind of out.”

That means “we have to do all we can at making sure Southwest is as happy as they possibly can be,” he said. “Buy local. If you like it, use it. That’s the only way you’re going to get to keep it.”

The educator

Headley grew up on a farm in Wellington and attended a two-room country school.

As a boy, “I didn’t plan on being an educator,” he said.

He came to education through a job in health planning, serving as director of planning for Health System Agency. There he began lecturing on the health planning process and other administrative issues.

“I got to liking that,” he said. “It was fun. I enjoyed explaining things to people.”

He began teaching marketing and management at Newman University in 1982.

After three years, he went to Oklahoma to earn a doctorate in marketing and statistics from Oklahoma State University.

He also holds a master of business administration degree from WSU and a master of public health degree from the University of Oklahoma.

In 1987, he joined WSU’s faculty, teaching health professions and statistics. The next year he began teaching in WSU’s Barton School of Business, and he now teaches marketing research and services marketing to undergraduate and graduate students.

He likes the challenge of explaining ideas effectively to students.

And “I like playing with numbers,” Headley said.

He also likes the flexibility of controlling his schedule outside the classroom.

“If you want to do your research at 2 in the morning, you can,” he said.

He also likes the rhythm of the profession.

“There’s a fall semester, a spring semester and there’s the summer,” Headley said.

When not teaching, Headley loves to travel and fly-fish.

He and his wife, Esther, have been married 42 years. She teaches marketing at WSU and is a partner with The Research Partnership, a marketing research and consulting firm.

After publishing an airline rating report for so many years, one would think Headley would hear lots of stories and complaints from the public. But not that many people connect him with the report.

When the subject comes up, however, he listens.

“I don’t get bored,” Headley said. “Oh no.”

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