- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2011

Travelers continue to grow frustrated with airlines, according to a study to be released Monday, despite minor improvements that have gone unnoticed.

Southwest appears to be one of the biggest winners in the latest Airline Quality Rating, which has been using Department of Transportation statistics for two decades. American Eagle appears to be one of the lowest-performing airlines.

Despite a trend toward increasing customer irritation, Southwest was one of four airlines that reduced its customer complaint rate, to 0.27 out of 100,000 passengers. The survey measured Transportation figures on quality for 16 major airlines.

Across the industry, the study found progress during 2010 in on-time performance, involuntary denied boardings and mishandled baggage, but that didn’t stop passengers from grumbling more.

“It’s a hassle, more so than it has been in the past,” said Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University, who conducted the study along with Brent Bowen, head of the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University. “The way the airlines are performing, what they’re doing is still not making the customers happy.”

Complaints jumped more than 25 percent to 1.22 out of 100,000 customers, the study found, a sign that dissatisfied passengers are growing weary. This was largely caused by such flight problems as unscheduled cancellations or delays. Problems with baggage, customer service, reservations, ticketing and boarding also contributed to fliers’ irritation.

Delta received the worst consumer complaint rate at 2.00, about 65 percent more than the industry average.

AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend said the Airline Quality Rating survey confirms a trend away from flying. For Christmas last year, 2.75 million passengers across the country traveled on airlines, according to a AAA study, compared with 7.28 million in 2002.

“For a lot of people, it isn’t worth the hassle anymore,” he said. “Long lines, taking off your shoes, going through the search. It used to be such a luxurious way of traveling, and now it’s just a big hassle.”

However, the greater number of complaints directed at all airlines flies in the face of slow-but-sure improvements in objective measures of customer service.

“It’s not a bad time to be flying,” Mr. Headley said.

On-time performance across the industry was up slightly, to 80 percent from 79.4 percent in 2009, but this number counts only flights that depart, not canceled flights. Hawaiian Airlines led the way with 92.5 percent of departing flights leaving on time, while Comair slumped with 73.1 percent.

The industry’s involuntary denied boardings rate improved slightly to 1.08 denials out of 10,000 passengers, from 1.19 a year ago. JetBlue had the best score at 0.01, with American Eagle at the bottom at 4.02.

Airlines commonly overbook their flights to make sure all the seats are filled. Then, they offer passengers incentives to volunteer their seats. If no one accepts, they force a passenger off the flight and usually do not offer any compensation. In some cases, it can be days before the traveler gets another flight.

“Obviously, if you bought a ticket, you think you’re going somewhere,” Mr. Headley said. “Then, they come along and say, ‘No, you’re not going anywhere.’ When that happens, it ruins your day.”

“I’ve actually seen that one play out,” he added. “They say, ‘The person that we took off checked in 32 minutes in advance. The person that we put on checked in 24 hours in advance.’”

One of the biggest improvements in the past few years is the shrinking number of mishandled bags. It dropped to 3.49 out of 1,000 bags, from 3.88 a year ago and 7.2 in 2007. Of the 16 airlines measured in the survey, 13 improved in this category, led by AirTran at 1.63. American Eagle, however, had the worst baggage mishandling rate, at 7.15.

But with fees for most checked bags and some even for carry-ons, the airlines now have a greater responsibility, Mr. Headley said.

“They got a little bit better, but they’d better be,” he said. “They’re charging you for that service now.”

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