As Virgin America claimed the top spot for the fourth consecutive year, overall U.S. airline performance improved slightly in 2015, according to the 26th annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR), released today (Monday, April 4) at the National Press Club in Washington.
The AQR is a joint research project funded as part of faculty research activities at Wichita State University (Wichita, Kansas) and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Prescott, Arizona, campus. Industry performance improved slightly after a down year in 2014.
Six of 13 U.S. airlines evaluated improved this past year, six declined and one airline (Spirit) was new to the ratings. Overall, the airline industry collectively improved in three of the four core elements traced by the AQR study: on-time performance, rate of involuntary denied boardings, and the rate of mishandled baggage.
However, the rate of customer complaints increased to its highest level in 15 years, per passenger served. Airlines that performed better in 2015 were JetBlue, Delta, ExpressJet, SkyWest, Southwest and United. Those whose scores declined from 2014 were Alaska, American, Envoy, Frontier, Hawaiian and Virgin America. Although Virgin America's score declined slightly, it still retained the overall No. 1 ranking. JetBlue climbed two spots to finish a close second, followed by Delta, which maintained third place.
Unhappy air traveling public
Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University, says the better overall performance shows that the recent round of mergers is settling in and performance is reflecting this to customer benefit.
"Bigger has produced some operating gains for the airlines, but customer perceptions of poor outcomes are still reflected in a higher number of customer complaints for the year," said Headley.
Study co-researcher Brent Bowen, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Prescott, Arizona, campus, agreed.
"These results clearly show that the air traveling public is not happy," Bowen said "Passengers are reaching out and letting us know exactly that, based on the number of complaints filed with the Department of Transportation. The human element of air travel is obviously deteriorating, and passengers are fed up."
The AQR score also reflects some of the complexities of an airline industry serving customers in a capacity-limited air travel system.
"When you look at the past 14 years, you find that the airline industry performs most efficiently when the system isn't stressed by high passenger volume and high number of airplanes in the air," said Headley. "With continued capacity limits and consolidation, one would hope that a less congested system would perform better. We began to see this again in 2015.
"The challenge is whether airline performance quality improvements at this level can be maintained as more people choose to fly. Does the infrastructure and air traffic control technology limit what the airlines can actually do?"
Bowen says the answer to that question and others like it will be sought by researchers and the flying public in the years to come.
"While these airlines are making record profits, the findings clearly indicate investments need to happen now to improve the customer experience in all of the complaint categories," Bowen added. "Additionally, airports, communities and the government agencies must improve the capacity for air travel because there is no indication that air travel growth will slow down in the future."
An electronic version of the full report, with details on each airline, is available at http://airlinequalityrating.com.
Inside this year's rating
Below is the 2015 numerical ranking of the nation's leading 13 airlines, according to the Airline Quality Rating, with the 2014 ranking in parentheses:
Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance (88.4 percent) for 2015, and Spirit had the worst (69.0 percent). Nine airlines improved their on-time arrival performance in 2015. Four of the 13 airlines rated had an on-time arrival percentage of better than 80 percent. On-time performance for the industry in 2015 was 79.9 percent, compared to 76.2 percent in 2014.
Involuntary denied boardings
JetBlue and Hawaiian are clearly the industry leaders in avoiding involuntary denied boarding incidents with a rate of 0.02 and 0.03 per 10,000 passengers, respectively. Envoy (2.35), ExpressJet (1.86) and SkyWest (1.78) had the highest involuntary denied boarding rates per 10,000 passengers. Nine airlines improved their denied boardings rate in 2015. SkyWest recorded the greatest improvement. Overall, the industry had 0.76 denied boardings per 10,000 passengers in 2015, compared to 0.92 in 2014.
Virgin America had the best baggage handling rate (0.84 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers) of all airlines, and Envoy Air had the worst baggage handling rate (8.52 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers). Eight airlines had improved mishandled baggage rates in 2015. The industry rate decreased from 3.62 per 1,000 passengers in 2014 to 3.24 in 2015.
Alaska had the lowest consumer complaint rate (0.50 per 100,000 passengers) of all airlines. Spirit had the highest consumer complaint rate (11.73 per 100,000 passengers). Customer complaints per 100,000 passengers increased from 1.38 in 2014 to 1.90 in 2015. The majority of complaints (73 percent) to the Department of Transportation were for flight problems (36.1 percent), baggage (13.4 percent), reservations, ticketing and boarding (11.8 percent) and customer service (11.3 percent).
More about the Airline Quality Rating
As the nation's longest running study of airline performance quality, the Airline Quality Rating (http://airlinequalityrating.com) sets the industry standard, providing consumers and industry watchers a means to compare performance quality among airlines using objective performance-based data. No other study in the country is based on performance measures like the AQR. Criteria included in the report are screened to meet two basic elements: They must be readily obtainable from published data sources for each airline, and they must be important to consumers regarding airline quality. The resulting criteria include areas such as baggage handling, customer complaints, denied boardings and on-time arrivals. The co-authors invite the flying public to participate in the Annual Passenger Survey at http://www.wichita.edu/aqrconsumersurvey.
About Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the world's largest, fully accredited university specializing in aviation and aerospace, is a nonprofit, independent institution offering more than 80 baccalaureate, master's and Ph.D. degree programs in its colleges of Arts & Sciences, Aviation, Business, Engineering and Security & Intelligence.
Embry-Riddle educates students at residential campuses in Daytona Beach, Florida, and Prescott, Arizona, through the Worldwide Campus with more than 125 locations in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and through online programs.
The university is a major research center, seeking solutions to real-world problems in partnership with the aerospace industry, other universities and government agencies. For more information, visit www.embryriddle.edu, follow us on Twitter (@EmbryRiddle) and facebook.com/EmbryRiddleUniversity, and find expert videos at YouTube.com/EmbryRiddleUniv.
About Wichita State University
Wichita State University, located in Wichita, Kansas, is becoming the Innovation University, transforming the world through innovation, applied learning, entrepreneurship and economic impact. Since 1895, Wichita State has been the linchpin of higher education in south-central Kansas by combining a traditional college experience with the advantages of being located in the state's cultural and industrial hub.
Together with local government and the Wichita business community, WSU has built one of the most unique partnerships in Kansas, one that over the years has propelled each to new heights. It's a relationship that both supplies the lifeblood of a thriving community and makes it possible to provide the most well-rounded education in the region. In 2012, Wichita State was ranked third among all U.S. universities in money spent on aerospace research and development. For more information, go to wichita.edu and follow us on Twitter (twitter.com/WichitaState) and Facebook (facebook.com/wichita.state).