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Mila D'Antonio | April 4, 2012

Why Are Airline Quality Ratings Soaring?

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It's inevitable. We've all experienced an airline horror story at one time or another. Whether it's a delayed flight, lost luggage, or a surly flight attendant, these experiences tend to unite us like the 4th of July.

However, according to a new study, there may be less of these disaster travel tales to share.

The latest Airline Quality Rating, a joint project of researchers at Purdue University and Wichita State University, shows 15 largest U.S. airlines on average improved in 2011 in all four objective performance categories: on-time performance, baggage handling, fewer customer complaints and overbooked flights, compared with the previous year.

In fact, in the two years that the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University has been tracking airline quality, last year was the best ever.

Based on data reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation, on-time arrival improved to 80 percent in 2011 from 79.8 percent in 2010; denied boardings improved to 0.78 per 10,000 passengers from 1.08; mishandled bags dropped to 3.35 per 1,000 from 3.49; and customer complaints fell to 1.19 per 10,000 passengers from 1.22.

AirTran held onto its first-place ranking, while American Eagle came in at 15. Others showed improvements in specific areas. American Airlines, for example, increased its score for mishandled baggage and Southwest had the lowest customer complaint rating.

The industrywide improvement in ratings for 2011 can be attributed largely to a drop in denied boardings, or being "bumped" from a flight, according to the lead researcher Dr. Brent Bowen, of Purdue University.

Despite the overall improvements, some airlines still didn't fare well. United Airlines' score actually worsened because it had more customer complaints from the year before and its mishandled baggage rate increased. I found this surprising since my understanding was that the airline was diligently addressing this performance area ever since Dave Carroll parodied his experience of witnessing airline employees tossing his and fellow band mates' guitars out of the plane in the hyper-downloaded and shared song "United Breaks Guitars."

Regardless, the study proves that airlines are stepping up their customer service standards. Or are they? Could it just be that travelers are so weary and used to poor service that they've come to expect very little from their flight experiences? Or are more airlines engaging in the practice of padding flight times so that late flights arrive "on time" to boost on-time rankings charted by the Department of Transportation?

Whatever the reason for the improved scores, I'm nonetheless glad to see these overall improvements and look forward to my flight on 6th-ranked Delta in a couple of weeks.

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