Alaska Airlines emerged as No. 1 in customer satisfaction while Hawaiian Airlines finished dead last among the 14 domestic carriers in the first survey of the airline industry conducted by Consumer Reports.
The survey indicated a high correlation between the financial health of the airline and its ability to satisfy customers.
Honolulu-based Hawaiian, for instance, lost $121 million last year, while Alaska has earned a profit 18 consecutive years, including $15 million last year on operating revenues of $895.7 million.
Clustered just ahead of Hawaiian were Eastern Airlines, placing 13th, which went out of business in January; Pan American World Airways Inc., ranking 12th, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection six months ago; Continental Airlines, RTC placing 11th, which sought bankruptcy in November, and TWA, finishing 10th, which has said it may seek bankruptcy protection.
But not every well-rated airline is a financial star. America West Airlines, which filed for Chapter 11 protection last week, finished third, and Delta Air Lines Inc. was second.
In the survey, 140,000 subscribers to the magazine rated their last two flights in nine categories, including on-time performance, food quality, cleanliness, baggage handling and check-in service.
In all, they provided data on 250,000 domestic flights from January 1989 to May 1990, with each carrier rated on at least 1,500 flights.
Other publications rank airlines, but the Consumer Reports survey is receiving special attention within the travel industry because of the magazine's reputation for consumer advocacy. The flagship publication of the non-profit Consumers Union organization, the magazine carries no advertising.
"I think there is a correlation between an airline's financial condition and its performance," said Richard E. Livingston, chairman and chief executive of the Airline Passengers Association of North America, a consumer group based in Arlington, Va.
"Maybe not its on-time performance or safety record, but those extra touches. When you have to start watching the bottom line so closely, then good meals, good service and those other extras that make a flight enjoyable are the first to go."
Consumer Reports did not ask respondents to rate airlines on safety, although safety was listed as paramount by those who responded to the recent survey conducted among readers of Euromoney, the monthly British journal of world money markets.
In that poll, American Airlines, at No. 4, was the only United States carrier to finish in Euromoney's top 10. "We didn't ask about safety because we consider that to be a matter of expert opinion," said Mark Kotkin, the senior researcher for the Consumer Reports survey.
Alaska Airlines, founded in Alaska in 1932 and now based in Seattle, serves mostly the Western states. It also flies to four cities in Mexico, and last month began three flights a week to Magadan and Khabarovsk, in the Soviet Union. In October, it will begin two daily round trips from Los Angeles to Toronto.
The Consumer Reports ranking is the latest in a string of honors that have come Alaska Air's way.
"We were rated the No. 1 U.S. carrier in 1990 and 1989 by the Conde Nast Traveler, and Air Transport World's airline of the world last year," said Greg Witter, the airline's manager of media relations.
"But Consumer Reports carries with it a level of significance that's tough to match."
Not surprisingly, other carriers that finished low in the Consumer Reports rankings point to what they say are flaws in the survey -- especially the 10-to-30-month lag between the flights assessed and publication of the assessment.
USAir, the airline with the most flights out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport, finished ninth in the survey published in the July issue of the influential consumer-interest magazine.
A spokeswoman for USAir called the report "ancient history" based on information gathered when the airline was having operational problems caused by its merger with Piedmont Arlines.
Since then USAir has substantially improved its performance, she said, noting the line's first-place ranking in the May customer service survey done by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"We're a very different airline," she said of USAir now compared with when the Consumer Reports gathered its data.