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Wichita State University

Quality Insider

Study: Airline Performance Improves

Better on-time performance, baggage handling, and customer complaints

Published: Tuesday, April 13, 2010 - 07:36

(Wichita State University: Washington) --  Airlines and airline passengers are discovering that less can be better. Fewer flights and fewer fliers have translated into better performance.

For the second consecutive year, the performance of the nation’s leading carriers improved, according to the 20th annual national Airline Quality Rating (AQR). It was the third best overall score in the 19 years researchers have tracked the performance of airlines.

Released during a news conference at the National Press Club, the rankings show that of the 17 carriers rated in 2008 and 2009, all but Alaska Airlines had improved AQR scores for 2009.

The AQR is a joint research project funded as part of faculty research activities at Purdue University and Wichita State University.

The industry improved in three of the four major elements of the AQR: on-time performance, baggage handling, and customer complaints. Denied boarding is the only element where the performance declined.

The slight increase in denied boardings is hardly surprising, according to Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University.

“You would expect denied boardings to increase as you tighten up on the number of seats that are available,” says Headley. “When you look at the past 10 years, you find that the airline industry performs most efficiently when the system isn’t stressed by high passenger volume. Every time there are more planes in the sky and more people flying, airline performance suffers. Airlines are focused on generating revenues, not necessarily on customer service.”

The challenge is whether airline performance quality can improve as more people choose to fly. Or does the infrastructure and technology limit what the airlines can do?

“Seeing a continuing upturn in quality is good news for all air travel consumers, but it does not mean we have fixed the system,” says Brent Bowen, professor and head of the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University. “Unfortunately, growth in the regional elements constitutes growth in the lowest tier of the AQR, meaning more consumers will be forced to fly airlines that have never placed higher than 12th in the ratings. Complaint levels and passenger frustration will only continue to rise as regional flights are used as a stop-gap to fix a broken system.

“[The airline] industry will never be successful in terms of quality until it can be successful financially. The financial crisis in the industry is a significant factor in the decline of quality,” says Bowen.

Inside this year’s rating

Below is the 2010 numerical ranking of the nation’s leading 18 airlines, according to the AQR, with the 2009 ranking in parentheses:

1.     Hawaiian (1)
2.     AirTran (2)
3.     JetBlue (3)
4.     Northwest (4)
5.     Southwest (6) 
6.     Continental (8)
7.     Frontier (7)
8.     US Airways (10)
9.     American (9)
10.   ExpressJet (not ranked in 2009 report)
11.   Alaska (5)
12.   Mesa (14)
13.   United (11)
14.   SkyWest (13)
15.   Delta (12)
16.   Comair (15)
17.   Atlantic Southeast (17)
18.   American Eagle (16)


The overall rankings changed very little from 2008 to 2009, as the top four airlines remained the same. Hawaiian repeated as the overall No. 1 ranked airline by a narrow margin over AirTran. The biggest change was Alaska, falling from a No. 5 ranking to No. 11.

Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance (92.1%) for 2009 and Atlantic Southeast had the worst (71.2%). Fourteen airlines improved their on-time arrival performance in 2009. Only six of the 18 airlines rated had an on-time arrival of more than 80 percent. On-time arrivals for 2009 by the industry was 79.4 percent compared to 76 percent in 2008.

JetBlue had the lowest involuntary denied boardings rate at zero per 10,000 passengers. American Eagle had the highest involuntary denied boardings rate at 3.76 per 10,000 passengers.

Overall, nine airlines improved their denied boardings rate in 2009. Atlantic Southeast recorded the largest improvement, while Alaska had the largest increase of denied boardings. JetBlue and Hawaiian are clearly the industry leaders in avoiding denied boarding incidents. Industry performance was worse in 2009 (1.19 per 10,000 passengers) than it was in 2008 (1.10).

AirTran had the best baggage handling rate (1.67 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers) of all airlines and Atlantic Southeast had the worst baggage handling rate (7.87 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers) of all the airlines.

Mishandled baggage was the most consistent area of performance improvement in 2009. All 18 airlines improved their mishandled baggage performance for the year. The rate for the industry decreased from 5.19 per 1,000 passengers in 2008 to 3.88 in 2009.

Southwest again had the lowest consumer complaint rate (0.21 per 100,000 passengers) of all airlines. Delta had the highest consumer complaint rate (1.96 per 100,000 passengers) of all airlines rated.

The industry’s overall customer complaints per 100,000 passengers decreased from 1.15 in 2008 to 0.97 in 2009. The majority of complaints were for flight problems (23.8%), baggage (18.7%), reservations, ticketing and boarding (15.1%), and customer service (13.9%).

An electronic version of the full report, with details on each airline, is available at http://aqr.aero.

As the nation’s most comprehensive study of airline performance and quality, the Airline Quality Rating sets the industry standard, providing consumers and industry watchers a means to compare quality among airlines using objective performance-based data.

No other study in the country is based on performance measures like the AQR. Criteria included in the report are screened to meet two basic elements: it must be readily obtainable from published data sources for each airline, and it must be important to consumers regarding airline quality. The resulting criteria include areas such as baggage handling, customer complaints, denied boardings, and on-time arrivals.


About The Author

Wichita State University

Wichita State University is located in Wichita, the medical, communication, cultural, financial and entertainment hub of Kansas. The city's size and diversity give WSU students unique opportunities to build a career foundation.