Study: U.S. Airlines Finally Improving

After five years of declining scores—including an overall worst-ever industry score in 2007—U.S. airlines' operational performance improved across the board in 2008, according to the results of the latest Airline Quality Rating study, released early this month.

Sponsored by Saint Louis University and Wichita State University, the annual Airline Quality Rating study analyzes data from the U.S. Transportation Department in order to score 17 U.S. airlines in four key operational areas: on-time performance, baggage handling, denied boarding and customer complaints. For the first time since 2004, scores in all four areas have increased.

Although airlines made concerted efforts to improve their services last year, researchers suggest that the industry's improved ratings are actually the result of service cuts. Because they cut approximately 11 percent of their collective capacity in 2008, airlines had fewer passengers and fewer bags to process—which researchers say helped them move aircraft from gates more quickly, reduce the number of overbooked flights more consistently and handle baggage more effectively.

"We know the system performs better when it's less stressed by high passenger volume," said Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University's W. Frank Barton School of Business. "The economy scared away both business and leisure travelers in 2008."

In order to prepare for increased traffic once the economy rebounds tomorrow, airlines should begin today a re-design of their systems in order to support sustained and ongoing improvements, according to Brent Bowen, chairman of the aviation science department at Saint Louis University's Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology. "It's clear from the rankings that now is the best time to invest in new infrastructure and upgrade technology," he said. "Now is the time to innovate."

Of the 17 U.S. airlines ranked, Hawaiian Airlines scored highest in the area of on-time performance, with an on-time performance of 90 percent. American Airlines scored the lowest, with an on-time performance of 69.8 percent.

The best airline for baggage handling was AirTran, with only 2.87 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. The worst was American Eagle, with 9.89 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers.

Jet Blue had the lowest involuntary denied boarding rate, at .01 per 10,000 passengers, while Atlantic Southeast had the highest, at 3.89 per 10,000 passengers.

Finally, Southwest Airlines had the fewer number of customer complaints, with .25 per 100,000 passengers. US Airways had the most, with 2.01 per 100,000 passengers.

Overall, the nation's 17 leading airlines were ranked as follows:

1. Hawaiian
2. AirTran
3. Jet Blue
4. Northwest
5. Alaska
6. Southwest
7. Frontier
8. Continental
9. American
10. US Airways
11. United
12. Delta
13. SkyWest
14. Mesa
15. Comair
16. American Eagle
17. Atlantic Southeast

For more information about the Airline Quality Rating report, visit