The Airline Quality Rating (AQR) is the premier statistical study of major airline performance in the United States, objectively comparing airline quality


2021 AQR Ranking

Rank Airline Name
1. Southwest
2. Allegiant
3. Delta
4. Alaska
5. Spirit
6. JetBlue
7. American
8. United
9. Hawaiian
10. Frontier

The impact of the novel coronavirus on the U.S. domestic air travel system in 2020 was profound and will have lingering effects for years to come.  Each airline was challenged to handle an uncertain situation and adapt its respective offerings to fast-changing circumstances.  Some airlines adapted quicker than others and the AQR numbers give some insight into this adaptive timeline.  The criterion that most affected the AQR performance scores for all airlines is a dramatic increase in customer complaints in the early months of the pandemic. While some system wide increase in customer complaints is seen in March 2020 the largest impact for most airlines appears in the April and May numbers.  Most early customer complaints were for issues involving refunds for unused travel. As the months passed, most airlines were able to better address passenger concerns regarding refunds and this is reflected in the monthly AQR scores for the later months of 2020.

Other AQR criteria, on-time performance, involuntary denied boardings and mishandled baggage, did not see such dramatic impact from the coronavirus.  Airlines were able to improve performance in these three areas.  With the flying public curtailing its use of the air travel system, outcomes for those who did choose to fly were generally good.  The drastic reduction in the number of enplaned passengers for all airlines has some correlation to these improved outcomes. As more was known about the coronavirus and how to travel more safely, passenger volumes began to return. While it will certainly take several months if not years, the air travel system is returning to better volumes and continuing to provide safe travel for the flying public.     

Some observations regarding the AQR criteria are shown below.

  • Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance (88.0%) for 2020.
  • Allegiant had the worst on-time performance (71.3%) for 2020.
  • Eight airlines improved their on-time arrival performance in 2020.  Nine of the ten airlines rated had an on-time arrival percentage over 80%.  On-time for 2020 by the industry was 83.6% compared to 79.4% in 2019.
  • Frontier had the highest involuntary denied boardings rate at 0.24 per 10,000 passengers.
  • Allegiant, Delta, Hawaiian and JetBlue had the lowest involuntary denied boardings rates at 0.00 per 10,000 passengers.
  • Seven airlines improved their denied boardings rate in 2020 and three airlines had the same rate as in 2019.  Allegiant recorded the largest improvement in denied boardings. Allegiant (0.00), Delta (0.00), Hawaiian (0.00), JetBlue (0.00) and United (0.01) are clearly the industry leaders in avoiding denied boarding incidents.  Industry performance was noticeably better in 2020 (0.08 per 10,000 passengers) than it was in 2019 (0.19).
  • Allegiant had the best baggage handling performance under the new measurement approach (1.48 mishandled bags per 1,000 checked bags). 
  • American had the worst baggage handling performance (6.38 mishandled bags per 1,000 checked bags).
  • The mishandled baggage rate for the industry changed from 5.57 per 1,000 checked bags in 2019 to 3.96 per 1000 checked bags in 2020.
  • Southwest had the lowest consumer complaint rate (2.64 per 100,000 passengers).
  • Frontier had the highest consumer complaint rate (49.30 per 100,000 passengers).
  • The industry rate for customer complaints per 100,000 passengers increased from 1.06 in 2019 to 11.75 in 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all airlines received record numbers of customer complaints. Most complaints (82.8%) to U.S. Department of Transportation were regarding refunds. In 2019 refunds were only 6.6% of complaints filed. In 2019 flight problems accounted for 40.0% (2.7% in 2020) of complaints, while customer service (12.6% in 2019 and 3.1% in 2020), baggage (12.0% in 2019 and 1.4% in 2020), and reservations, ticketing, and boarding (9.4% in 2019 and 2.4% in 2020) all were of less concern to the flying public.
  • The pandemic had a dramatic impact on the number of people choosing to fly for most of 2020.  Enplaned passengers started to drop off in March for all airlines as the scope of the coronavirus became clearer.  Total enplaned domestic passengers for 2020 were only 38.9% of the number of enplaned passengers for 2019.  The over 60% reduction in travelers across the year certainly helped the on-time, baggage handling and denied boardings performance for most airlines.  As mentioned before, the rise in customer complaints was the primary performance issue for airlines. How quickly each airline addressed customer complaints helps tell the story of how each airline ‘s AQR score was achieved.     
Download full 2021 report


The Airline Quality Rating (AQR) was developed and first announced in early 1991 as an objective method for assessing airline quality on combined multiple performance criteria. This current report, the Airline Quality Rating 2021, reflects monthly Airline Quality Rating scores for calendar year 2020. AQR scores for 2021 are based on 15 elements in four major areas that focus on airline performance aspects important to air travel consumers over the calendar year of 2020.

The Airline Quality Rating 2021 is a summary of month-by-month quality ratings for U.S. airlines that are required to report performance by virtue of having at least 0.05% of domestic scheduled-service passenger revenue during 2020. Using the Airline Quality Rating system of weighted averages and monthly performance data in the areas of on-time arrivals, involuntary denied boardings, mishandled baggage, and a combination of 12 customer complaint categories, the AQR reports airlines’ comparative performance for the calendar year of 2020. This research monograph contains a summary of the AQR methodology and detailed data that track comparative performance quality for domestic airline operations for the 12-month period of 2020 and the industry. Also, comparative Airline Quality Rating data for 2019 are included, where available, to provide historical perspective regarding performance quality in the industry.

AQR Archive Site (1991-2020) decorative plane on runway in blue


Dr. Dean E. Headley

Dr. Dean E. Headley

Dr. Dean E. Headley is emeritus associate professor of marketing in the Department of Marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University. He holds a Doctorate in Marketing and Statistics from Oklahoma State University, a Master of Business Administration degree from Wichita State University, and a Master of Public Health Degree from the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Headley’s research interests include methodology development for measurement of service quality, the connection between service quality and consumer behavior, consumer choice processes in service settings, and the effects of marketing activities on consumers and providers of services.

Wichita State University
W. Frank Barton School of Business
304 Clinton Hall
Wichita, KS 67260-0084

Office: (316) 978-3367

Dr. Brent D. Bowen

Dr. Brent D. Bowen

Dr. Brent D. Bowen is a former professor of Aeronautical Science and former dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. Previously, Dr. Bowen chaired the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University. Dr. Bowen attained his Doctorate in Aviation Sciences from Oklahoma State University and a Master of Business Administration degree from Oklahoma City University. His Federal Aviation Administration certifications include Airline Transport Pilot (Type-rated Douglas DC-3 SIC), Certified Flight Instructor (SEL, MEL, Instrument) with Gold Seal, Advanced-Instrument Ground Instructor, Aviation Safety Counselor, and Aerospace Education Counselor.