- Associated Press - Sunday, April 1, 2012

Air travelers who have endured lost bags, delayed flights, lousy service and getting bumped from full planes might want to scream at the entire airline industry.

But flying actually is getting better, when measured by these benchmarks, say private researchers who have analyzed federal data on airline performance.

Airlines are slowly, steadily recovering from their meltdown five years ago, when, under the strain of near-record consumer travel demand, their performance tanked. Industry performance for all four measurements was slightly better in 2011, compared with 2010, according to the report being released Monday.

“Airlines are finally catching up with what their promise is, which is getting you there on time 80 percent of the time with your bags,” said Dean Headley, a business professor at Wichita State University who has co-written the annual report for 22 years.

“They realize that people are paying a lot more money, and the system is more complex than it was, and they have to do a better job,” he said. “To their credit, I think they are doing a better job.”

With higher fuel costs, airfares are trending up, although increases vary significantly depending on whether the passenger is flying between major airports, or is heading to or from a small or medium-sized airport, Mr. Headley said. As airlines cut back service to smaller airports, the cost of air travel in small and medium cities is increasing, he said.

“It really depends on the market you are in,” he said, noting that in 2010 he paid $275 to fly round-trip from Wichita, Kan., to Washington, D.C., where he released that year’s report. This year, the same trip cost him $360.

In judging quality of performance, low-cost carriers that mainly fly between large hubs tend to fare the best, Mr. Headley said. The large airlines that have been around since before airline deregulation in the early 1980s tend to fall in the middle. Regional airlines, which often fly smaller planes that have more difficulty avoiding storms, generally pull up the rear.

The ratings are based on data submitted to the Department of Transportation by the 15 airlines that carried the most passengers domestically last year: AirTran, Alaska, American, American Eagle, Atlantic Southeast, Continental, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Mesa, SkyWest, Southwest, United and US Airways.

Mr. Headley and Purdue University aviation-technology professor Brent Bowen, the report’s co-author, planned to release on Monday an overall airline ranking of performance.

Airline performance last year was likely helped by a mild winter in much of the country despite an “October surprise” snowstorm that snarled the Northeast, he said.

Hawaiian Airlines did the best job of arriving on time, with an average of 92.8 percent, while JetBlue Airways had the worst on-time performance, 73.3 percent. A flight is considered on time if it arrives with 15 minutes of when it was originally due.

Nearly half the 15 airlines improved their on-time arrival performance in 2011, and seven had an on-time arrival percentage topping 80 percent - Hawaiian, Southwest Airlines, AirTran Airways, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Mesa Airlines. The average on-time performance for the industry was 80 percent last year, just a tad better than 2010’s average of 79.8 percent.

Mesa had the highest rate of passengers with tickets who were denied boarding, at 2.27 per 10,000 passengers. Such “bumpings” are usually a result of overbooking. JetBlue had the lowest rate of bumped passengers, 0.01 per 10,000 passengers.

AirTran had the best baggage-handling rate, 1.63 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. American Eagle had the worst baggage-handling rate, 7.32 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. That was more than double the industry rate of 3.35.

Southwest Airlines once again had the lowest consumer-complaint rate, 0.32 complaints per 100,000 passengers; United Airlines had the highest consumer-complaint rate at 2.21.