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Airline Quality? Not Much

The 2013 Airline Quality Rating, a joint undertaking by professors at Rutgers and Wichita State universities, was published this week with its annual review and rankings of U.S. airlines’ performance during the previous year.

The study incorporates 15 elements in four areas of airline performance: mishandled bags, on-time arrivals, denied boardings, and customer complaints. The report synthesizes data compiled by the DOT for its monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, and assigns U.S. airlines a higher or lower AQR (Airline Quality Rating) accordingly.

For 2012, the winners and losers, from best to worst, are as follows:

  • Virgin America
  • JetBlue
  • AirTran
  • Delta
  • Hawaiian
  • Alaska
  • Frontier
  • Southwest
  • US Airways
  • American
  • American Eagle
  • SkyWest
  • ExpressJet
  • United

While the study has the look and feel of rigorous quantitative analysis, there’s a fundamentally subjective set of choices at its core. The various factors are weighted according to the opinions of a panel of “airline experts,” whose perceptions may or may not accord with those of the traveling public. For example, the study overweights on-time performance and underweights customer complaints.

Looking into performance in specific areas yields a mixed picture. On the positive side, the study showed more on-time flights (up to 82 percent in 2012 from 80 percent in 2011) and fewer lost bags (an 8 percent improvement over the previous year).

Among the highlights:

  • Hawaiian had the best on-time-record, at 93.4 percent. American and ExpressJet tied for worst, at 76.9 percent.
  • Delta was at 86.5 and United at 77.4 percent.
  • American Eagle had the most mishandled bags, at 5.80 per 1,000 passengers. Best was Virgin America, with 0.87.
  • For the group overall, 3.07 bags were mishandled for every 1,000 passengers, down from 3.35 in 2011.

But denied boardings increased from .78 per 10,000 passengers in 2011 to .97 in 2012. And more generally, customer complaints increased almost 20 percent over last year, suggesting a decline in the overall travel experience.


  • United had by far the highest level of customer complaints, with 4.24 per 100,000 passengers.
  • Other high-scorers: American (1.80), US Airways (1.74), Virgin America. (1.50)
  • Southwest was lowest, with 0.25 complaints per 100,000 passengers.
  • Other low-scorers: Alaska (.51), Delta (.73), JetBlue (.79).

Forest for the Trees

Good. Bad. Better. Best.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the rankings and data points.

What stands out to me—what I think should be overweighted—is the increase in complaints. That speaks to the degradation of the travel experience overall.

Bottom line: In the minds of an increasing number of travelers, airline quality remains an oxymoron.

Reader Reality Check

How did your preferred airlines fare?

How do the study results square with your own experience?

This article originally appeared on

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