- Associated Press - Monday, April 8, 2013

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. airlines scored their second-best performance last year in the more than two decades that researchers have been measuring airline quality, with Virgin America the leader, an annual report released Monday says.

The report ranked the 14 largest U.S. airlines based on on-time arrivals, mishandled bags, consumer complaints and passengers who bought tickets but were turned away because flights were over booked.

Airline performance in 2012 was the second highest in the 23 years that Wichita State University and Purdue University have tracked the performance of airlines. The airline’s best year was 2011.

Virgin America, headquartered in Burlingame, Calif., did the best job on baggage handling and had the second-lowest rate of passengers denied seats because of overbookings. United Airlines, whose consumer complaint rate nearly doubled last year, had the worst performance. United has merged with Continental Airlines but has had rough spots in integrating the operations of the two carriers.

The number of complaints consumers filed with the Department of Transportation overall surged by one-fifth last year to 11,445 complaints, up from 9,414 in 2011.

“Over the 20-some-year history we’ve looked at it, this is still the best time of airline performance we’ve ever seen,” said Dean Headley, a business professor at Wichita State University, who co-wrote the annual report. The best year was 2011, which was only slightly better than last year, he said.

Despite those improvements, it’s not surprising that passengers are getting grumpier, Mr. Headley said. Carriers keep shrinking the size of seats in order to stuff more people into planes. Empty middle seats that might provide a little more room have vanished. And more people who have bought tickets are being turned away because flights are overbooked.

“The way airlines have taken 130-seat airplanes and expanded them to 150 seats to squeeze out more revenue, I think, is finally catching up with them,” he said. “People are saying: ‘Look, I don’t fit here. Do something about this.’ At some point airlines can’t keep shrinking seats to put more people into the same tube,” he said.

The industry is even looking at ways to make today’s smaller-than-a-broom closet toilets more compact in the hope of squeezing a few more seats onto planes.

“I can’t imagine the uproar that making toilets smaller might generate,” Mr. Headley said, especially given that passengers increasingly weigh more than they use to. Nevertheless, “will it keep them from flying? I doubt it would.”

The rate of complaints per 100,000 passengers also rose to 1.43 last year from 1.19 in 2011.

In recent years, some airlines have shifted to larger planes that can carry more people, but that hasn’t been enough to make up for an overall reduction in flights.

The rate at which passengers with tickets were denied seats because planes were full rose to 0.97 denials per 10,000 passengers last year, compared with 0.78 in 2011.

It used to be in cases of overbookings that airlines usually could find a passenger who would volunteer to give up a seat in exchange for cash, a free ticket or some other compensation with the expectation of catching another flight later that day or the next morning. Not anymore.

“Since flights are so full, there are no seats on those next flights. So people say, ‘No, not for $500, not for $1,000,’” airline industry analyst Robert W. Mann Jr. said.

Story Continues →