Airline Quality Rating holiday travel forecast
Wednesday, October 3, 2012 8:00 AM

Holiday travel 2012

Traditionally high passenger volumes and the possibilities of bad weather are realities for holiday travel. Travelers on U.S. airlines usually find that ticket prices and overall costs are higher. While industry airline performance quality has improved each year since 2007, the travel experience has become more stressful and uncertain, especially around the end-of-the-year holidays.

Dean Headley
Dean Headley
"During the past several years, the holiday travel period has been a struggle for airline passengers," said Dean Headley, Airline Quality Rating co-author and marketing professor at Wichita State University. "December typically has one of the worst industry performance scores of any month. The best bet for the consumer is to travel as early before the actual holiday or as late as possible afterward, and always leave room for schedule changes."

The industry overall

Looking back, 2011 was a good year for airline performance, said Headley. Data indicate that improvement trends continued for the first six months of 2012.

"Data shows performance scores are getting better," said Headley. "We are settling in to a reduced capacity system that challenges travelers to be more savvy. With strong demand for fewer seats, it also presents an opportunity for the airlines to perform better, but also charge more for a ticket."

Headley point s out that the 2011 data showed improvement in the last quarter of the year: "holiday travel in 2011 was actually better than in the summer of 2011."

"If you look at this improvement trend with month-over-month performance scores being better, even the more difficult winter months hold hope for a better travel experience," said Headley. "Air travel will cost more, but if you can find a seat, it may operate better."

In 2011, best-performing airlines in each of the AQR categories were Hawaiian, Jet Blue, Air Tran and Southwest. Hawaiian was best in on-time performance. Jet Blue was best in avoiding denied boardings. Air Tran was best in baggage handling. Southwest had the lowest rate of customer complaints.

The worst performing airlines in each of the AQR categories were Atlantic Southeast, Mesa, American Eagle and United. Atlantic Southeast had the worst on-time performance. Mesa had the worst rate of denied boardings. American Eagle had the highest rate of mishandled baggage. United had the highest rate of customer complaints. 

What's ahead?

According to Headley, airline acquisitions, mergers and bankruptcies continue to add new dynamics to the industry and shrink consumer choice options. The most recent events with industry-changing potential have been the combining of United and Continental airlines, the combining of Southwest and AirTran and the uncertainty surrounding the American Airlines bankruptcy. The success of these new mega-carriers in combining operations is yet unknown.

"If you look at past AQR data (http://airlinequalityrating.com), you will find that combining two very large airlines does not necessarily result in improved performance and usually takes several years to settle out," said Headley. "Look back to the Delta/Northwest and U.S. Air/America West mergers, and you find that these mergers brought performance problems for the new carriers."

Airline fees are still there, so consumers need to be aware and plan for the added costs. Unbundled services available a la carte are the new reality.

"Ticket prices may appear to be reasonable to slightly higher, but when the fees hit you, you truly feel that the overall cost of travel has gone up," said Headley. "Maybe a year ago the average price was $350, but with $75 in fees, that ticket seems noticeably more expensive. When the travel involves tickets and fees for the parents and children, the costs add up quickly. At some point, consumers will simply say that the holiday visit is not worth the price and the hassle."

The national Airline Quality Rating for 2013 (covering the performance results of 2012) will be released Monday, April 8, 2013, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

For information about the national Airline Quality Rating, go to http://airlinequalityrating.com.

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Contact: Dean Headley, (316) 978-3367 or dean.headley@wichita.edu.