America

New Airline Survey Gives Virgin America Top Rating

A man looks at a flight departure board filled with weather-related cancellations and delays at Boston's Logan Airport in January. i i

A man looks at a flight departure board filled with weather-related cancellations and delays at Boston's Logan Airport in January. Charles Krupa/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Krupa/AP
A man looks at a flight departure board filled with weather-related cancellations and delays at Boston's Logan Airport in January.

A man looks at a flight departure board filled with weather-related cancellations and delays at Boston's Logan Airport in January.

Charles Krupa/AP

U.S. airlines got their highest ratings in more than 20 years in 2013, according to an annual survey, but customers were still not satisfied with the frequency of flight delays and lost or damaged bags.

Of 15 carriers rated by the Air Quality Rating survey conducted by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Wichita State University, Burlingame, Calif.-based Virgin America and Long Island City, N.Y.-based JetBlue scored Nos. 1 and No. 2, respectively, for the second consecutive year.

Of the carriers, eight airlines improved, six declined and one is new to the rankings.

The overall score is decided by a complex, weighted formula taking into account four areas: on-time, denied boardings, mishandled baggage and overall customer complaints. It's worth noting that overall complaints to the government dropped 15 percent last year from 2012.

Here's the whole list, with the ranking for 2012 in parentheses:

1. Virgin America (1)

2. JetBlue (2)

3. Hawaiian (5)

4. Delta (4)

5. Alaska (6)

6. Endeavor (new to the rankings this year; formerly Pinnacle)

7. US Airways (9)

8. Southwest (8)

9. American (10)

10. AirTran (3)

11. Frontier (7)

12. United (14)

13. ExpressJet (13)

14. SkyWest (12)

15. American Eagle (11)

And, here are some of the highlights:

— On-time arrival: Hawaiian got the highest rating of the 15 airlines; American Eagle trailed behind the pack.

— Involuntarily denied boardings, or "getting bumped" from a flight: Virgin America had the least bumps; Express Jet, the most.

— Mishandled bags: Virgin had the fewest mishandled bags (0.97 per 1,000 passengers) compared with 5.9 per 1,000 passengers for the lowest scorer, American Eagle.

— Overall complaints: Southwest had the fewest (0.34 per 100,000 passengers) compared with the lowest-ranking Frontier, with 3.09 per 100,000 passengers).

Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University and a co-author of the study, says airlines have done a better job by keeping capacity in check.

"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," Headley says. "With continued capacity limits and consolidation, one would hope that a less congested system would perform better.

"The challenge is whether airline performance quality improvements at this level can be maintained as more people choose to fly. Or does the infrastructure and air traffic control technology limit what the airlines can actually do?"

Bren Bowen, a co-author of the report, says Delta Airlines, which held steady, is particularly noteworthy. The carrier merged with Northwest in 2008 and, according to USA Today, Bowen notes that when mergers happen the, "new mega-sized airline's performance declines."

But not in Delta's case.

"It's scientifically proven whenever you combine two large airlines, especially two average performing airlines you get one worse performing airline," Bowen, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Prescott, Ariz., campus, tells the newspaper. But now "a former merged legacy carrier has bucked that trend. ... I think what this is saying is if management wants to make it happen, and wants to turn it around and knows the right formula, they can do it."

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