US airline service quality incrementally better in 2010


The annual Airline Quality Rating, jointly issued by Brent Bowen of Purdue and Dean Headly of Wichita State has been released. The good news is that the combined US industry achieved its best performance since 2004 and has shown improvements each year since 2007 when the news was grim all around.

Complex formula

The scores are tabulated by using a complex formula that weighs and compares data from the US DoT’s Air Travel Consumer Report. In its monthly report, the DoT records on-time data, denied boardings, mishandled bags and a broad, much more subjective collection of customer complaints that were submitted by passengers.

The first three categories are easily measured and provide direct comparative measurements that can be tracked between airlines and over time. The complaints, by contrast, are subjective assessments of a wide variety of topics and, given the industry’s size, are relatively few in number.

Only a very few choose to write

For all of 2009, there were only 7,120 complaints received; with 2010 yielding 9,119, or a 22% increase. However, considering the millions of passengers carried, only a miniscule percentage was angry enough to submit a complaint to the DoT.

In every month of 2010, the number one complaint topic was the broad area of “flight problems”, with baggage difficulties being a strong second. Both headings can embrace a wide range of circumstances with the only commonality being the fact that they caused the passenger enough angst to generate a written report.

Broad interpretations

In general, the smaller (Alaska and Hawaiian) network carriers and the new generation operators (AirTran, JetBlue and Southwest) continued to rank at the top with AirTran and Hawaiian continuing to hold the first and second slots. However, this year AirTran was number 1.

And again in 2010, the commuter carriers received the lowest scores, with American Eagle snagging the bottom spot—a position that it has maintained quite reliably over time.

In the combined scores rating amongst the legacies, US Airways was at 6, Delta at 7, Continental at 8, American at 11 and United at 12. Again, while there were some positions exchanged amongst these carriers, as a group they occupied pretty much their standard slots.

Differing results by category

Within individual categories, the legacy airlines had better showings. In the on-time performance ranking, United came in second after the perennial winner, Hawaiian.

In terms of denied boardings, Delta bested the legacy group and took second place overall, but scored miserably in terms of DoT complaints. As befits its customer-friendly reputation, Southwest had the fewest complaints by a huge margin.

When looking at mishandled bags, US Airways outpaced its peer group and came in fourth overall while American ranked poorest amongst its peers. Combined with American Eagle’s last place standing, the chances of having one’s bag mishandled on an AA/American Eagle itinerary were significantly higher.

Positive movement

The report gives some cause for hope as the US industry continues to move in a positive direction, at least in those areas tracked and reported by the DoT. However, subjectively other polls have shown that consumers are increasingly annoyed by rising fees and charges as well as a general sense that the airlines, as a group, continue to be indifferent to the traveling public and provide minimally acceptable service.

Some carriers have undertaken specific measures designed to improve their performance with United’s efforts to improve punctuality having shown dramatic change.  Meanwhile, as Southwest expands into more major markets, its punctuality has suffered as the airline enters more congested airports.

Really better?

Travelers in the US can expect that their chances of arriving on time and with bags in hand have improved over the past year. However, the real time for celebration will come when airlines once again become more popular than the Internal Revenue Service, a feat not likely to be achieved anytime soon.

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