America's Meanest Airlines: 2012

U.S. News & World Report

America's Meanest Airlines: 2012

The 2012 Airline Quality Ratings (AQR) report shows that the American airline industry has improved over the past year, but only slightly, notes the report's co-author, Dr. Dean Headley.

Headley, an associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University, has been co-writing the AQR report for 22 years with Dr. Brent Bowen, head of the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University's College of Technology. The 2012 AQR report ranks the performance and quality of 15 major American airline carriers. The methodology factors in four common complaint areas: on-time arrivals, involuntary denied boardings (commonly referred to as "getting bumped"), mishandled baggage, and customer satisfaction. While some industry professionals believe that the airline's size—whether it's a national or regional carrier—should be taken into account, Headley disagrees. "The question is: For every 1,000 passengers, how many times did you get it right?" he says.

Headley believes that the AQR report is an eye-opener for the American airline industry, as well as a necessary tool for progress. "The airlines have gotten better as a whole at keeping their dirty laundry from being exposed," he says. "This is the only rating that's still exposing it. If you can hold their feet to the fire, something's going to get better."

To fan the flames, U.S. News Travel has comprised a list of the national and regional airline carriers that can stand to improve based on their AQR score.

AQR Score: -0.80

The dust from Delta's 2008 merger with Northwest Airlines seems to have settled. The Atlanta-based carrier showed significant improvement in all four AQR categories. Along with the number of mishandled bags and involuntary denied boardings, the number of customer complaints dropped from two per 100,000 passengers in 2010 to 1.23 in 2011. Headley attributes Delta's increased satisfaction rate to a better-developed corporate philosophy. "People have become accustomed to what Delta is going to be," he says. However, Delta's four-legged passengers don't seem to be reaping the same benefits of the airline's improvements. According to the 2012 Air Travel Consumer Reports released by the U.S. Department of Transportation, more pets died on Delta flights than on any other airline in 2011.

AQR Score: -0.93

Headley wasn't surprised that Southwest had the lowest rate of customer complaints among the airlines reviewed in the AQR report. "Southwest almost always has the attitude of 'let's have fun,'" he says. "They may not promise much, but they also don't hassle you." The low-cost carrier only received 0.32 complaints per 100,000 passengers in 2011. Southwest managed to increase its percentage of on-time arrivals while lowering the number of involuntary denied boardings. However, the airline left slightly more baggage to the wind last year. The number of mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers jumped from 3.43 in 2010 to 3.65 in 2011.

AQR Score: -1.13

Although US Airways has reduced its involuntary denied boardings from 1.61 instances per 10,000 passengers in 2010 to 0.94 instances in 2011, it has begun to slack in the other three categories. The percentage of on-time arrivals fell from 83 percent to 79.8 percent, while the number of mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers increased. US Airways also received more customer complaints in 2011 than it did in 2010, most of which were likely related to unplanned flight cancellations or delays.

AQR Score: -1.24

American Airlines has made some progress between 2010 and 2011. The airline has improved on-time performance by 2 percent and reduced the number of mishandled bags from 3.82 per 1,000 passengers to 3.55. However, the rise in customer complaints indicates that the airline still has quite a bit of work to do in terms of providing its passengers with a satisfying experience. And the slight increase in the number of involuntary denied boardings probably didn't help.

AQR Score: -1.41

Continental has also experienced some negative side effects of the 2010 merger with United Airlines. The number of consumer complaints—most likely concerning lost or damaged baggage or tardy arrivals—jumped from 1.48 per 100,000 passengers in 2010 to 1.81 in 2011. The only area in which Continental showed improvement was its number of denied boardings, which slid from 1.82 per every 10,000 passengers in 2010 to 1.49 in 2011.

AQR Score: -1.45

United Airlines had the highest rate of consumer complaints in 2011, beating out all other airlines with 2.21 complaints per 100,000 passengers. As a result, United received the worst AQR score out of the 11 national carriers ranked. Headley suspects that the company's $3 billion merger with Continental Airlines is to blame. "Anytime you have two airlines trying to combine, one of those airlines is going to have a period of decline," he explains. United also experienced a drop in its percentage of on-time arrivals, and the number of lost or damaged bags increased from 3.4 per 1,000 passengers to 3.66.

AQR Score: -1.15

SkyWest works under contract with a number of national carriers, including United Airlines, US Airways, and Delta, and saw a slight increase in customer complaints from 2010 to 2011. The shift from 0.61 grievances per 100,000 customers to 0.73 complaints is most likely attributed to the airline's relatively high number of mishandled bags. According to the AQR report, SkyWest lost or damaged 4.13 bags per 1,000 passengers, which is an improvement from 2010, but still not great.

AQR Score: -1.60

This Delta Connection carrier has decreased the number of mishandled bags from 6.71 instances per 1,000 passengers in 2010 to 5.52 in 2011—good, but still not great. And unlike its parent airline, Atlantic Southeast's ability to arrive on time seems to be slipping. The percentage of Atlantic Southeast flights that arrived on time dropped from 79.2 in 2010 to 75.2 in 2011. However, despite a slight increase, the airline's customer complaint rate is still admirably low at just 0.88 complaints per 100,000 passengers. This could be due to the airline's increasing rate of involuntary denied boardings.

AQR Score: -1.70

The number of mishandled bags on Mesa flights continues to increase. The report shows a jump from 3.97 instances per 1,000 passengers in 2010 to 4.87 in 2011. Unfortunately, the minor effort that Mesa made to better its on-time performance and reduce the number of involuntary denied boardings doesn't seem to be enough for passengers. This regional carrier, which operates under both United Airlines and US Airways, saw a bump in the number of consumer complaints received per 100,000 passengers.

AQR Score: -2.51

If you're flying American Airlines' regional carrier, consider refraining from checking your luggage. American Eagle Airlines has had the worst baggage handling rate for the past two years. In 2011, the airline lost or damaged 7.32 bags per 1,000 passengers, which is more than double the industry average of 3.35 mishandled bags. However, to American Eagle's credit, it has shown the biggest improvement in terms of involuntary denied boardings, cutting the number of instances per 10,000 passengers down from 4.02 in 2010 to 2.24 in 2011.

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