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Hawaiian Named Highest Quality Airline

Hawaiian is the highest-quality airline in the United States. At least that’s what the just-announced annual “Airline Quality Rating” (AQR) scores for 2009 indicate. And the combined quality score for the country’s 18 largest airlines rose a bit this year, reaching its best level since 2003. But, at least to me, those AQR scores measure less than half of the real quality story. And, again for me, JetBlue remains the overall top U.S. airline.

As I’ve noted in previous analyses of AQR scores, to most of you, “quality” has two distinct components:

  • How good the product is, as promised.
  • How well the supplier delivers on what was promised.

AQR measures only the delivery component of quality. Its scores are a composite of objective delivery measures: on-time performance, how many travelers were denied boarding (“bumped”), how many bags the line mishandled, and how many complaints were logged by the DOT’s consumer program, all adjusted to a consistent per-passenger index.
Hawaiian topped all lines in delivery quality—not surprising in view of the fact that most of its flights are high-frequency short interisland hops where bad weather seldom disrupts operations for long and few travelers need to connect between flights.

In general, the large trunk airlines scored better than the regionals, and the smaller of the trunk lines did better than the giants. Because of the way the AQR formula works, all scores are negative numbers (I omit the minus signs; the lower the score number the better), with overall trunk line scores ranging from 0.40 to 1.73. In individual scores, Hawaiian at 0.40, AirTran at 0.49, and JetBlue at 0.62 were close at the top, followed by closely bunched Northwest (0.88, now absorbed by Delta), Southwest (1.00), Continental (1.09), and Frontier (1.09); then US Airways (1.19), American (1.25), Alaska (1.39), United (1.43); finally Delta, last at 1.73. Among the regionals, ExpressJet (1.32), Mesa (1.42), and SkyWest (1.57) scored in the same range as the trunk lines; the three others—Comair (2.22), Atlantic Southeast (2.49), and American Eagle (2.83)—scored well below any trunk line.

Current AQR scores are a reasonably good predictor of future performance. Although the order of scores changed somewhat from 2008 figures, both winners and losers tend to be fairly consistent from year to year.
Among the individual trunk line performance measures:

On-time arrival: Hawaiian easily outscored all the others (no surprise); Alaska, Southwest, United, and US Airways did better than average.

Bumping: JetBlue, which doesn’t overbook, didn’t bump anybody, and Hawaiian was close; AirTran, American, and Northwest bumped fewer than one passenger out of 10,000.

Mishandled baggage: AirTran and Alaska lost fewest bags; Continental, JetBlue, and Frontier also did well.

Complaints: Southwest and Alaska generated the fewest complaints per passenger, but AirTran, Frontier, Hawaiian, and JetBlue also did well.

The problem with delivery-based scores is, of course, that an airline promising little and delivering it well can outscore a line that offers a significantly better product but makes a few more mistakes. A line as bad as Ryanair, for example, could earn a good AQR score by delivering its really lousy product consistently.

If your idea of “quality” focuses more on onboard service and features, AQR scores mean nothing. Most admittedly subjective surveys these days tend to rate JetBlue’s product as the best coach/economy class in the business, with its tops-in-the-world legroom and customer-friendly policies; Continental and Virgin America have also been earning good marks. Sadly, Midwest, once a perennial winner for a really good coach product, is now completely gone.

The annual AQR release usually generates more ink (and pixels) that I’ve seen so far, probably because of the media focus on the concurrent Iceland volcano mess. Even so, you’ll probably still see quite a bit about AQR. And when you do, keep two factors in mind:

  • AQR scores measure only part of the quality picture.
  • Last year’s scores do not necessarily predict this year’s performance.

Personally, I prefer a better product to slightly better delivery, but it’s an individual choice.

Who do you think deserves the distinction of “highest-quality airline” for 2009? Share your thoughts by submitting a comment below!

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