POSTED BY: | April 12, 2010

Airlines and airline passengers are discovering that less can be better: Fewer flights and fewer fliers have translated into better performance, according to an annual survey of U.S. airlines.

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

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 percent) for 2009, and Atlantic Southeast had the worst (71.2 percent). Fourteen airlines improved their on-time arrival   performance in 2009. Only six of the 18 airlines rated had an on-time arrival percentage over 80. On-time for 2009 by the industry was 79.4 percent compared to 76 percent in 2008.

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

Released during a news conference at the National Press Club today (Monday, April 12), the rankings show that of the 17 carriers rated in both 2008 and 2009, all but Alaska Airlines had improved Airline Quality Rating scores for 2009.

The industry improved in three of the four major elements of the AQR: on-time performance, baggage handling and customer complaints. Denied boardings 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,” Headley said. “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,” said 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,” Bowen said.

“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,” Bowen said.

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.

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 percent), baggage (18.7 percent), reservations, ticketing and boarding (15.1 percent), and customer service (13.9 percent).

An electronic version of the full report, with details on each airline, will be available at: