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Survey: Best and Worst Airlines to Fly, and Why

A new survey says domestic airlines improved their on-time performance last year, lost or mangled our baggage less often, and even reduced their annoying habit of ignominiously bumping passengers from flights. Sounds like the skies are getting a whole lot friendlier? Not exactly. In the same Airline Quality Rating (AQR) survey, passenger complaints shot up 28 percent in 2010.

The Limits of Taking to the Sky
The AQR survey, a joint project of the Purdue University Department of Aviation and Wichita State University's business school digs into U.S. Department of Transportation data for 16 domestic airlines, sizing up their performance in four broad categories:

  • On Time Performance
  • Bumped Passengers
  • Baggage Snafus
  • Customer Complaints
Best Overall Airlines:
  1. AirTran Airways
  2. Hawaiian Airlines
  3. JetBlue
Worst Overall Airlines:
16. American Eagle
15. Atlantic Southeast
14. Comair
The data crunchers give on-time performance and bumped passengers the heaviest weighting in their rankings with customer complaints counting the least. Here's how the airlines shake out for the four separate rating categories:

On-Time Performance
Best: Hawaiian Airlines 92.5 percent on-time performance

Worst: Comair 73.1 percent

Average: 80 percent, up a smidge from 79.4 percent in 2009

Despite the slight improvement in overall on-time performance, the fact that we have a roughly 1 in 5 chance of being late explains why "flight problems" account for nearly one-third of 2010 complaints made to the DOT. Of course, weather is a huge factor here, something even the airlines can't control. And it's no doubt that weather helps Hawaiian Airlines score so well.

Bumped Passengers
Best (Lowest Rate): Jet Blue .01 involuntary denied boardings per 10,000 customers

Worst: American Eagle 4.02

Average: 1.08, slightly better than the 1.19 per 10,000 rate in 2009

This is one area where the airlines cleaned up their act as the year progressed. In the first quarter of the year there were 1.72 denied boardings per 10,000 passengers, but by Q4 that was down to 0.77 per 10,000. It wasn't necessarily about delivering a better customer experience, however. A mid-year move by federal regulators to increase airline payments to bumped passengers caused this welcome trend.

Baggage Issues

Best: AirTran 1.63 baggage snafus per 1,000 passengers

Worst: American Eagle: 7.15

Average: 3.49, compared to 3.88 in 2009

Baggage issues showed the biggest overall improvement in 2010 among the four categories. Better airline service? Nah, more a function of having less baggage to mess with. Rather than cough up the bucks to cover checked baggage fees, we stuffed 59 million more carry-ons into the overhead bins last year.
A few baggage tips:

  • Ship it. If you do have to go large and check in, and you're booked on American Eagle, you might want to follow CBS travel editor Peter Greenberg's baggage strategy to ship your bags ahead of your trip.
  • Try to travel lighter in the winter. According to the AQR, January and December 2010 were the worst months for baggage problems, with complaints running nearly one-third higher than the overall annual average. No coincidence that the winter months were the worst for on-time performance; messed up schedules and missed connections have a way of increasing the odds of baggage problems. If you can stick to the overhead in the winter, that might keep the blood pressure in check. The best time to check in baggage is the fall. September, October, and November saw lower than average baggage problems.
Consumer Complaints
Best: Southwest 0.27 per 100,000 passengers

Worst: Delta: 2.0 per 100,000

Average: 1.22, up from 0.97 in 2009

Of the 16 airlines in the ratings, just four clocked in with fewer customer complaints in 2010 (Air Tran, Alaska, Atlantic Southeast, and Mesa). Even uber-friendly Southwest saw its score increase slightly from 0.22 in 2009 to 0.27 in 2010. But that's still about 7 times better than Delta.

One limitation of the AQR survey is that it relies solely on official consumer complaints submitted to the Department of Transportation. Last year, the DOT got 9,119 complaints. Something tells me that's a very small sampling compared to the complaints lodged directly at the airlines. Did you have a beef with any flight last year? If so, let us know what went wrong in the comments section below.

Photo courtesy Flickr user joannapoe

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