Air travelers endure year of turbulence

The Baltimore Sun

Travelers had another bad year of flying in 2006, according to two university professors who have been ranking airlines for the last 17 years.

The nation's top 18 carriers lost more baggage, bumped more passengers and were late more often last year than the year before, according to the Airline Quality Rating, released yesterday.

And while that was no surprise to travelers in and out of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport yesterday, few felt like they could complain after listening to recent news reports of passengers stuck on planes all day with little access to food or bathrooms.

"I've had one lost bag in the last year, and I travel a lot," said Roger Silva, a Federal Emergency Management Agency instructor from Plymouth, Mass., who landed at BWI yesterday on a Southwest Airlines flight from Boston. "I guess that makes me luckier than most."

Airline quality has dropped for three straight years, according to report researchers at the University of Nebraska's Aviation Institute and the Wichita State University W. Frank Barton School of Business.

For the most part, discount carriers performed better than traditional carriers, the report found.

The researchers say there were a number of reasons why. There were 18 percent to 20 percent fewer seats in the past few years, but passenger numbers have returned to pre-Sept. 11, 2001 levels. More passengers began checking luggage after the federal government banned most liquids in carry-ons. And though some airlines are again reporting profits after years of losses, many remain financially troubled.

Their performance was worse in three of four categories:

Mishandled luggage: The 18 largest carriers lost an average of 6.5 bags per 1,000 in 2006 compared with 6.06 per 1,000 in 2005.

On-time performance: Airlines were on time 75.5 percent of the time in 2006, compared with 77.3 percent of the time in 2005.

Involuntary denied boardings: 1.01 per 10,000 passengers in 2006, compared with .89 per 10,000 passengers in 2005.

But, when it came to consumer complaints, the number was almost unchanged from the year before: .88 in 2006 per 100,000 passengers, verses .89 per 100,000 passengers in 2005.

That means that passengers have lower expectations or they just don't bother to complain, said Dean E. Headley, an associate professor at the Barton School of Business and co-author of the Airline Quality Rating report.

In 2000, there were three times as many complaints about airlines as last year, he said. The report did not rank airports.

"Consumer expectations have been lowered since Sept. 11 because they expect security issues, they know airlines will nickel and dime them because of financial issues and then they see people stuck on a JetBlue plane for 11 hours and they say, 'Oh, things aren't that bad for me,' " he said. "The best thing they can say nowadays about their flight is that it was uneventful."

The Air Transport Association, an airline trade association, deflected blame for most troubles by attributing them to bad weather and air traffic congestion.

James C. May, president of the group, said replacing the nation's "outdated and inefficient" air traffic control system would help. The Federal Aviation Administration is working on that, although there is no timetable.

A spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, the largest carrier at BWI, said officials there try and take responsibility and apologize when there is a problem.

That attitude - and the fact the airline hasn't ever lost her luggage and has rarely been late - has kept Edith Cannon coming back. She lives closer to Reagan National Airport in Northern Virginia than BWI but comes to Baltimore to fly Southwest.

"I've been doing this for years now," she said. "I have no complaints."

As for other top airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, one of those new to the ranking, was No. 1 based largely on an on-time rate of more than93 percent. JetBlue Airways, AirTran Airways, Frontier Airlines and Northwest Airlines rounded out the top five.

Paul Fuchs, a Johns Hopkins University professor, returned yesterday to BWI from Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Delta Air Lines, No. 12 in the rankings. He said flying just isn't pleasant anymore.

"Generally speaking, there are many more people crammed into the airport and planes, security makes everything move more slowly and the planes just seem like they're wearing out," he said.

"It's like riding the Greyhound bus," he said. "But no one complains because no one is surprised."

Kate Hanni, who formed the Coalition for Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights after being stuck on a plane for an entire day, said bad treatment should not be acceptable. The Airline Quality Rating is further evidence that Congress, which has been considering legislation in this area, needs to mandate better customer service, she said.

"The flying public needs a voice and legal recourse," she said in a statement. "The airlines have had the opportunity to make good on their promises to improve customer service and ensure basic rights for passengers. It's time for Congress to ensure that airlines make passengers their top priority."

Airline rankings

Hawaiian Airlines was the top-rated airline last year based on its performance in baggage handling, late arrivals, customer complaints and denied boardings.

1) Hawaiian 2) JetBlue 3) AirTran 4) Frontier 5) Northwest 6) Southwest 7) Continental 8) United 9) Alaska 10) American 11) ATA 12) Delta 13) US Airways 14) SkyWest 15) Mesa 16) COMAIR 17) American Eagle 18)Atlantic Southeast

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