A study to be released Monday concludes that most major airlines' service got better last year, according to such criteria as on-time performance, denied boardings, mishandled baggage and customer complaints.
"Airline quality has improved for the second consecutive year," said Dean Headley, one of the study's co-authors and associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University. "That's a good thing, but it should have improved given that there are fewer passengers and fewer scheduled flights."
Service has steadily improved since the delay-ridden summer of 2000 because passenger traffic fell after the economy slowed and Sept. 11 terrorists crashed four planes, said the study, supported by the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Wichita State.
Two airlines that filed for bankruptcy protection last year - United and US Airways - managed to be on time more often, mishandle fewer bags and generate fewer consumer complaints than they did the previous year, the report concluded. United also bumped fewer passengers.
The only major airline that made a profit last year, Southwest, also got better. Southwest consistently has the lowest complaint rate of .33 per 100,000 passengers, compared with an industry rate of 1.22, the report said.
Delta increased its rate of denied boardings by more than 40 percent for the second straight year, the report said, though the airline improved in other areas.
Such rankings don't affect traveler's buying decisions, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association.
First, travelers narrow the choice based on price and schedule, he said, and then they make their choice based on frequent flyer programs.
"All things being equal, the frequent-flier relationship will often be the tie breaker," Stempler said.
The report was co-authored by Brent Bowen, director of the University of Nebraska's aviation institute, and based on Transportation Department statistics.
By Leslie Miller