High passenger volumes and the possibility of bad weather are always part of holiday travel. Travelers on U.S. airlines during the days surrounding Thanksgiving and Christmas usually find that ticket prices are higher and seats are harder to find. With reduced capacity (fewer seats available) across the industry and increased demand by travelers, booking early is highly recommended.
While industry airline performance quality has generally improved each year since 2007, the travel experience has become more stressful and uncertain, especially around the end-of-the-year holidays.
"During the past several years, the holiday travel period has continued to be a challenging time for travelers, and with industrywide seat capacity reduction, it will remain a stressful travel experience," said Dean Headley, Airline Quality Rating co-author and associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University.
"December typically has one of the worst industry performance scores of any month. December 2012 was the worst performance score for all of 2012. 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, 2012 was a steady year for airline performance, said Headley. Data indicate that improvement trends continued for the first six months of 2013.
"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 points out that 2012 data showed consistently worse industry performance (month over month) for the last six months of 2012 compared to 2011.
"Travel in late 2012 was actually getting worse as we approached the end of the year," said Headley.
In 2012, best performing airlines in each of the AQR categories were Hawaiian, Jet Blue, Virgin America and Southwest. Hawaiian was best in on-time performance. Jet Blue was best in avoiding denied boardings. Virgin America was best in baggage handling. Southwest had the lowest rate of customer complaints.
The worst performing airlines in each of the AQR categories were American and Express Jet, SkyWest, American Eagle and United. American and ExpressJet had the worst on-time performances. SkyWest had the worst rate of denied boardings. American Eagle had the highest rate of mishandled baggage. United had the highest rate of customer complaints.
According to Headley, airline mergers and consolidation continue to add new dynamics to the industry and shrink consumer choice options. Recent events with industry-changing potential have been the combining of United and Continental airlines, the combining of Southwest and AirTran, and the pending merger of American Airlines and US Airways. The success of these new mega-carriers in combining operations is a work in progress.
"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 a reality, so consumers need to be aware and plan for the added costs that their choices might bring. 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."
Being a more self-reliant traveler is your best protection against the hassles of travel by air. Always check your flight status well in advance of going to the airport and check-in online 24 hours in advance if possible.
When booking air travel during the holidays, allow time to make the connecting flight. Leave extra time between connections in case flights are delayed and flight schedules get changed. Pack as light as possible. Ship packages or luggage ahead of time so last-minute schedule changes don't put your belongings at risk of being lost.
The national Airline Quality Rating for 2014 (covering the performance results of 2013) will be released Monday, April 7, 2014, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.