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Airline Quality? Not Much

Airline Quality? Not Much

The 2013 Airline Quality Rating, a joint undertaking by professors at Purdue and Wichita State universities, was published this week with its annual review and rankings of U.S. airlines’ performance during the previous year.

The study incorporates 15 elements in four areas of airline performance: mishandled bags, on-time arrivals, denied boardings, and customer complaints. The report synthesizes data compiled by the DOT for its monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, and assigns U.S. airlines a higher or lower AQR (Airline Quality Rating) accordingly.

For 2012, the winners and losers, from best to worst, are as follows:

  • Virgin America
  • JetBlue
  • AirTran
  • Delta
  • Hawaiian
  • Alaska
  • Frontier
  • Southwest
  • US Airways
  • American
  • American Eagle
  • SkyWest
  • ExpressJet
  • United

While the study has the look and feel of rigorous quantitative analysis, there’s a fundamentally subjective set of choices at its core. The various factors are weighted according to the opinions of a panel of “airline experts,” whose perceptions may or may not accord with those of the traveling public. For example, the study overweights on-time performance and underweights customer complaints.

Looking into performance in specific areas yields a mixed picture. On the positive side, the study showed more on-time flights (up to 82 percent in 2012 from 80 percent in 2011) and fewer lost bags (an 8 percent improvement over the previous year).

Among the highlights:

  • Hawaiian had the best on-time-record, at 93.4 percent. American and ExpressJet tied for worst, at 76.9 percent.
  • Delta was at 86.5 and United at 77.4 percent.
  • American Eagle had the most mishandled bags, at 5.80 per 1,000 passengers. Best was Virgin America, with 0.87.
  • For the group overall, 3.07 bags were mishandled for every 1,000 passengers, down from 3.35 in 2011.

But denied boardings increased from .78 per 10,000 passengers in 2011 to .97 in 2012. And more generally, customer complaints increased almost 20 percent over last year, suggesting a decline in the overall travel experience.


  • United had by far the highest level of customer complaints, with 4.24 per 100,000 passengers.
  • Other high-scorers: American (1.80), US Airways (1.74), Virgin America. (1.50)
  • Southwest was lowest, with 0.25 complaints per 100,000 passengers.
  • Other low-scorers: Alaska (.51), Delta (.73), JetBlue (.79).

Forest for the Trees

Good. Bad. Better. Best.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the rankings and data points.

What stands out to me — what I think should be overweighted — is the increase in complaints. That speaks to the degradation of the travel experience overall.

Bottom line: In the minds of an increasing number of travelers, airline quality remains an oxymoron.

Reader Reality Check

How did your preferred airlines fare?

How do the study results square with your own experience?

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  • Don Bit

    What is really skewed is the fact they placed Skywest Airlines of having the most involuntary denied boardings. Actually that should be shown on the mainline carriers stats, since they are the ones that overbook the flights while cutting flights to the areas they are overbooking. The regionals don’t have any choice when mainline decides to over book.

  • Grayson Baker Friend

    Just for clarification, the article says Wichita State and Rutgers, but the photo says Wichita State and Purdue. Am I reading it wrong or is the article or photo wrong?

  • Tim Winship

    Grayson – Purdue is correct. Our mistake, now corrected. Thx for pointing that out.

  • Sarfa33

    The improvement in on-time performance can pretty much be ignored. If you recall, the UA/CO merger wreaked all kinds of havoc on on-time peformance back in 2011 — so it’s not so much an improvement in 2012 as a reversion back to the status quo.

  • CRH

    Actually, the report is flawed in many ways. For example, on-time performance is obviously dependent on weather-related issues. The authors could have factored in the percentage of flights delayed due to airline-related issues, which is published each month by the BTS, but they chose not to. Furthermore, they could have also looked at the percentage of canceled flights, or percentage of flights with long delays. Virgin America obviously does very well with baggage handling (probably having relatively few connecting passengers). In contrast, airlines with large hub and spoke operations tend to have more mishandled bags due to misconnections. The regionals also have higher mishandled bags since they handled many connecting pax and are frequently on the “receiving end” of problems. Also, Virgin America and JetBlue do not deliberately overbook, so again that skews this metric drastically in their favor. Skywest’s rate of involuntary denied boardings is 232 times that of JetBlue, and as mentioned, that probably has nothing to do with Skywest’s policies.

    Also, when you look at how the summaries of the different airlines are written, it is obvious that the authors have some thinly veiled bias against legacy carriers.