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Airline Quality Rating: 2015 airline performance improves slightly; Virgin America narrowly retains top spot.

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.

WASHINGTON – 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 yesterday 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, Kan.) and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University‘s Prescott, Ariz., 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, Ariz., 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.”

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:

  • Virgin America (1)
  • JetBlue (4)
  • Delta (3)
  • Hawaiian (2)
  • Alaska (5)
  • Southwest (6)
  • SkyWest (10)
  • United (9)
  • ExpressJet (11)
  • American (7)
  • Frontier (8)
  • Envoy Air (12)
  • Spirit (new to rating in 2015)

On-time performance
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.

Baggage handling
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.

Consumer complaints
ad 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).

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