- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 9, 2002

The nation's airlines recorded fewer delays, bumped fewer passengers and lost fewer items of luggage in 2001 than the previous year, according to a study released yesterday.

The Airline Quality Rating study, based on information collected from the U.S. Department of Transportation, showed that even before September 11, customer service was improving and air passengers were making fewer complaints. Ten of the nation's top 11 airlines improved their performance over the year.

Arlington-based US Airways was ranked second-best overall, up from fourth the previous year, the study said.

The study's authors said the improvements in 2001 showed the airlines had made a commitment to customer service after agreeing to a series of voluntary reforms in 1999. Around that time, airline passengers had been increasingly vocal about service problems, prompting calls for congressional involvement.

"The promise they made [to Congress] back in 1999 finally got fulfilled," said the report's co-author Dean Headley, an associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University in Kansas. Mr. Headley issued the report with Brent Bowen, director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha Aviation Institute.

The Airline Quality Rating survey rates airlines according to 15 elements of performance, with special weight given to on-time arrival.

Customer complaints also were weighted heavily. This concerned some independent analysts, who said complaint figures from September through December were unusually low because anthrax scares in the District disrupted mail service to the Transportation Department.

They also said passengers may have been less inclined to register complaints after September 11 out of sympathy for the embattled airlines. Still, analysts said it was clear from other indicators that airlines had improved service.

The survey showed that:

•On-time arrival improved from 72.6 percent in 2000 to 77.4 percent in 2001.

•Boarding denials fell from 1.04 per 10,000 passengers in 2000 to 0.86 per 10,000 passengers in 2001.

•Consumer complaints dropped from 2.98 per 1,000 passengers in 2000 to 2.11 per 1,000 passengers in 2001.

•Mishandled baggage claims fell from 5.29 per 1,000 passengers in 2000 to 4.55 claims per 1,000 passengers in 2001.

"The authors of the Airline Quality Rating are finally acknowledging reality," the Air Transport Association said in a statement. "Even before September 11, our airlines were making significant improvements in every single customer performance category, thereby fulfilling our commitments dating to June 1999."

Alaska Airlines received the highest rating in the survey, followed by US Airways and Northwest Airlines. Only Delta Airlines, ranked fifth, received a score worse than in 2000. America West, rated worst in 2000, climbed to ninth, and was rated most improved airline.

"Given our operational improvements that we've been having month by month, it's no surprise that we'd show an improvement in 2001 over 2000," said America West spokeswoman Patty Nowack. "We're happy to say we're a much different airline than we were 18 months ago."

Analysts say increases in the use of online schedules, electronic ticketing, airport kiosks and other technology advances have led to a smoother customer experience.

Airline performance figures from 2001 had nowhere to go but up, analysts said, because figures from 2001 were poor, particularly in the area of customer complaints. Analysts also said complaint figures in 2000 were skewed on the high end, in part because that was the year the Transportation Department began allowing complaints to be registered via e-mail and on the Web.

"Now the novelty of hopping on the Web site and e-mailing a complaint has worn off," said Terry Trippler, an independent airline analyst based in Minneapolis.

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