The average air traveler might not have felt it, but the quality of U.S. airlines last year improved to the highest level in the 24-year history of a widely reported ratings system.
"All in all, it's a good time to fly," said Dean Headley, one of the authors of the new report released Monday.
However, airlines dominant in the Chicago region did not fair well overall.
While Chicago-based United Airlines, the dominant carrier at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, improved on every measure, it still ranked just 12 out of 15 airlines in the annual Airline Quality Ratings report. The report is a joint project of researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Witchita State University.
Ratings are based on four measures critical to consumers — on-time performance, baggage handling, customer complaints and being involuntarily bumped from a flight. Data comes from metrics measured by the U.S. Department of Transportation and is weighted by researchers.
American Airlines, also a big carrier from O'Hare, ranked ninth, while Southwest Airlines, the largest carrier out of Chicago Midway airport, ranked No. 8 and was the only airline to worsen on all four measures.
The best airlines in America, based on the report, were, in order, Virgin America, JetBlue Airways, Hawaiian Airlines, and Delta Air Lines, the best by far among large airlines. The worst were American Eagle, SkyWest, ExpressJet and United.
United was able to improve its performance on all four criteria but remain low ranked. "It had nowhere to go but up," Headley said. "At least, they went in the right direction. They had to. Their complaint ratio last year was just through the roof...They still have a long ways to go."
United in 2012 combined operations, including computer systems, with Continental Airlines. That led to glitches and inefficiencies that caused flight delays and cancellations during the year, especially during the busy summer travel season. It was the most complained-about airline in America that year.
"United is investing significantly to improve our customers’ experiences and provide employees the tools to deliver great service, with customer satisfaction ratings consistently reflecting that improvement," said United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson.
"While we are pleased to see the latest rankings reflect our progress, we continue to develop new products, services and employee programs to better ensure we are delivering the experience customers expect," he added.
Sometimes travelers' experiences with airline quality doesn't jibe with dispassionate statistics, Headley said. "The numbers can move in the right direction, but perception oftentimes doesn't catch up with that," Headley said. "Let's face it, if your bag gets lost, that sucks."
And the data in the rankings do not account for fliers' distaste for added fees, which consumers sometimes view as "nickel-and-diming" by airlines.
In the past, airline mergers "almost always" mean worse quality for the consumer, at least in the near term -- two to four years after the merger, Headley said.
That probably doesn't bode well for customers for the new American Airlines, a recent combination of American and US Airways that created the world's largest carrier, Headley said. And it depends on what culture takes root at the new American, which
"US Air has kind of a checkered history," he said. "Their ability to merge has not been stellar." He said he's less worried about Southwest's merger with AirTran.
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