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Dean Headley, co-author of the national Airline Quality Rating at Wichita State University, says airlines continued to improve in 2010.

PODCAST: Airline performance improved in 2010

Monday, April 04, 2011

This WSU Newsline Podcast is available at http://www.wichita.edu/newslinepodcast. See the transcript below:

You’re listening to the podcast edition of the Wichita State University audio newsline. Learn more about WSU — the home of Thinkers, Doers, Movers and Shockers — on the Web at wichita.edu.

According to the 21st annual national Airline Quality Rating, AirTran is the best-performing airline. The rating is conducted annually by researchers Dean Headley of Wichita State University and Brent Bowen of Purdue University.

According to the Airline Quality Rating for 2010, AirTran is first, followed by Hawaiian, JetBlue, Alaska and Southwest; the second five are US Airways, Delta, Continental, Frontier and SkyWest; and No. 11 is American, followed by United Mesa, Comair, Atlantic Southeast and American Eagle.

The AQR, as an industry standard, uses objective performance-based data to compare quality among airlines. The study ranked the 16 largest U.S. airlines in on-time arrivals, baggage handling, denied boardings and customer complaints. Dean Headley, co-author of the national Airline Quality Rating at Wichita State University, says airlines continued to improve last year.

Headley: “For 2010, the industry performed better for the third year in a row, which is a good thing for the consumer. In the areas we look at in on-time performance and mishandled bags and involuntary denied boardings, the industry performed better; marginally, but better. The area where the industry got worse was in customer complaints.”

“The rankings for this year produced a new No. 1. AirTran is the new No. 1 carrier for this year. Hawaiian was No. 1 for the last two years, but AirTran was, the year before that was No. 1, so they’ve always been at the top. Hawaiian just slipped a little bit in their baggage handling and number of customer complaints and AirTran didn’t, and they came out on top.”

In spite of better performance generally, consumers found plenty of things to be unhappy with, as Headley explains.

Headley: "Customer complaints increased in number about 28 percent for 2010, which is a noticeable jump, almost 2,000 extra complaints. Most of those came in the area of what’s called flight problems — cancellations, delays and unscheduled schedule changes — which really is the biggest problem that the consumer faces right now.”

Headley says the airlines generally do a good job, but there’s little margin for error.

Headley: “Well, the airlines are fairly efficient in what they do. They’re on time and they don’t lose a lot of bags, but the system is running so tight right now with the number of airlines that have taken seats out of service, there’s just no room for error. And when you have a schedule change or a flight gets delayed for some reason, that causes a problem, and that’s what the people are complaining about.”

Airline mergers don’t always result in a high ranking, but Headley said the merger of Delta and Northwest seemed to help Delta.

Headley: “In the last few years we’ve had a couple of mergers — Delta, Northwest — which produced good results for Delta when Northwest was folded in. Why it actually boosted Delta’s performance from a low-tier carrier up to a middle-tier. So they really gained some ground this year because of that. The merger we have on the horizon is Southwest and AirTran. Southwest has always been in the top third of the rankings anyhow, and AirTran No. 1, so I’m expecting really good things out of that particular merger.”

Each year, there are some changes in the rankings, but one thing is fairly certain —Southwest is the best-performing airline when it comes to fewest customer complaints, as Headley explains.

Headley: “Given the problems we’ve had this year with higher complaints, it’s good to note that Southwest is always perennially the lowest receiver of complaints. They are the least complained about airline. They don’t offer a lot of a promise. They say we’re going to get you there and have some fun doing it, and they deliver on that very consistently. The people just don’t find anything to complain about with Southwest.”

Headley also has some observations about the industry during the 20-year history of the Airline Quality Rating.

Headley: “Over the 20 years we’ve been looking at this, we can distinctly tell that whenever the system is taxed as to volume and the number of passengers that we have, and actually the number of flights that are out there in the system; whenever that happens, back in 2000 and then again in 2007 is when we see it the most — the system fractures. We just can’t handle the volume for that. So, as the airlines start to adjust the number of planes, we then start having problems with people not being able to find the seats that they want, and they certainly cost more.”

The airlines face a bit of a paradox — even though they are performing quite well, customer complaints are on the rise.

Headley: “Overall, the airline system works pretty well, and it’s generally to the airlines’ advantage to have fewer flights and make more money on each flight. That frustrates the consumer, and so consequently we see the number of complaints going up. So, I think overall, we’re in a good place, performing well, mostly on time, not losing a lot of bags. But we just haven’t found the right balance; the airlines haven’t, to keep the customers happy as the customer would like to be. I think the airlines are probably doing okay with that because they’re making money.”

Hawaiian had the best on-time performance at 92.5 percent for 2010, and Comair had the worst at 73.1 percent. Eleven airlines improved their on-time arrival performance in 2010.

JetBlue had the lowest involuntary denied boardings rate, and American Eagle had the highest rate. Overall, seven airlines improved their denied boardings rate in 2010.

AirTran had the best baggage handling rate of all airlines, and American Eagle had the worst baggage handling rate. Mishandled baggage was the most consistent area of performance improvement in 2010 with 12 of 16 airlines improving for the year.

Southwest again had the lowest consumer complaint rate, and Delta had the highest consumer complaint rate. For more information, go to www.aqr.aero.

Thanks for listening. Until next time, this is Joe Kleinsasser for Wichita State University.

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Created on Monday, April 04, 2011; Last modified on Monday, April 04, 2011