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Virgin America tops list of best airline performance while United Airlines ranks lowest

Airline performance in 2012 was the second highest in 23 years, according to an airline performance rating.

Virgin America 2The researchers said that passengers are experiencing better performance by the airlines, although it might cost more to fly.

The performance of the nation's leading carriers in 2012 was nearly identical to the best year in 2011, according to the 23rd annual national Airline Quality Rating prepared by Wichita State University and Purdue University.

Of the 14 carriers rated for performance in 2011 and 2012, seven airlines improved, five airlines declined, and two are new to the rankings, including the overall No. 1 performing airline, Virgin America.

Improvement in two of four areas

Airlines improved in two of the four items in the rating: on-time performance and baggage handling. Involuntary denied boardings and the customer complaint rate were higher in 2012.

The challenge airlines have is whether airline performance quality improvements can be maintained as more people fly, said Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University.

The airline industry performs most efficiently when the system isn't stressed by high passenger volume and high number of airplanes in the air, Headley said. When there are more planes in the sky and more people flying, airline performance suffers.

The researchers said when two airlines consolidate, it usually the airline quality ratings of the new company usually declines.

Brent Bowen, head of the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University, said the researchers will be watching to see if the consolidation of two highly rated carriers, former No. 1 AirTran and Southwest, will reverse the trend.

This year's ratings

Below is the 2013 ranking of the nation's leading 14 airlines, according to the Airline Quality Rating, with the 2012 ranking following the Airline name:

  1. Virgin America – new to the ranking this year
  2. JetBlue, 3
  3. AirTran, 1
  4. Delta, 6
  5. Hawaiian, 2
  6. Alaska, 5
  7. Frontier, 4
  8. Southwest, 7
  9. US Airways, 8
  10. American, 10
  11. American Eagle, 15
  12. SkyWest, 9
  13. ExpressJet, not rated in 2011
  14. United, 12

The rankings changed most for American Eagle Airlines, from 15 up to 11, for 2012. Virgin America came into the rankings as the top rated airline. JetBlue, 2, and AirTran, 3, both maintained their top positions for 2012.

On-time performance

Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance, with 93.4 percent for 2012, and ExpressJet and American had the worst, with 76.9 percent.

Eight airlines improved their on-time arrival performance in 2012. Nine of the 14 airlines rated had an on-time arrival percentage of more than 80 percent. On-time for the industry in 2012 was 81.8 percent compared to 80 percent in 2011.

Denied boardings

JetBlue had the lowest involuntary denied boardings at .01 per 10,000 passengers. SkyWest had the highest involuntary denied boarding rate at 2.32 per 10,000 passengers.

Overall, five airlines improved their denied boardings rate in 2012. American Eagle recorded the greatest improvement, and SkyWest had the largest decline. JetBlue and Virgin American are the industry leaders in avoiding denied boarding incidents.

Industry performance was worse in 2012, with .97 per 10,000 passengers, than it was in 2011 with .78 per 10,000 passengers.

Baggage handling

Virgin America had the best baggage handling rate, with .87 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers, of all airlines, and American Eagle had the worst baggage handling rate, with 5.80 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers, of all the airlines.

Seven of 14 airlines improved their mishandled baggage performance for the year. The rate for the industry decreased from 3.35 per 1,000 passengers in 2011 to 3.07 in 2012.

Consumer complaints

Southwest again had the lowest consumer complaint rate, with .25 per 100,000 passengers, of all airlines. United had the highest consumer complaint rate, with 4.24 per 100,000 passengers, of all airlines rated.

Customer complaints per 100,000 passengers increased from 1.19 in 2011 to 1.43 in 2012. The majority of complaints were for flight problems, 32.7 percent; reservations, ticketing, and boarding, 14.6 percent; customer service, 14.3 percent; and baggage, 12.4 percent.

The researchers invite the flying public to participate in the Annual Passenger Survey at http://www.wichita.edu/aqrconsumersurvey.

Copyright 2013, Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist

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