Airline Ratings Are Up — So Are Complaints and Fares

The U.S. airline industry is coming off its second-best year ever in terms of customer service, but it comes with a price: Complaints were up, and so was the average fare for flying.

The Airline Quality Rating gave high marks to the 14 largest U.S. airlines for on-time arrivals, consumer complaints, mishandled bags and passengers who bought tickets but were turned away because of overbooking. The report, compiled by Wichita State and Purdue University, said satisfaction in those areas was the second-highest in the 23-year history of their survey.

The industry’s best rating came in 2011.

The report also said that passenger complaints were up 22 percent over 2011, but some of that could be attributed to easier access to technology for registering complaints. As for the price of flying, that increased, but only minimally. The average cost of an airline ticket was up 4 percent.

People are Flying

Still, according to the Department of Transportation, U.S. airlines had an 82.8 percent load factor, the highest for scheduled service since 1945. Airlines carried 736.6 million passengers, a 0.8 percent increase from 2011. That includes a record-setting 83.4 million international passengers.

“Airlines continue to provide affordable fares and reliable, on-time service,” Airlines for America Vice President and Chief Economist John Heimlich said in a press release. “Flying remains the safest mode of transportation, and airlines have shown stellar on-time and baggage handling performance.”

The Airline Quality Rating system ranked Virgin America No. 1 among domestic carriers, followed by JetBlue and Air Tran. The lowest ratings went to United, Express Jet and SkyWest.

On-time performance was up for seven of the airlines in the survey. The 14 major airlines were on time 82 percent of the time, versus 80 percent in 2011. Hawaiian Airlines was the best, getting there on time 93.4 percent of the time. Alaska Airlines (87.5 percent) and Air Tran (87.1) were next. American and Express Jet were the worst, hitting it just 76.9 percent of the time.

The mishandling of baggage improved overall, with 3.07 bags lost per 1,000 passengers, down from 3.35 a year ago. Virgin America was the best, mishandling less than one bag (0.87) per 1,000 passengers, while American Eagle was the worst, mishandling 5.8 bags per 1,000.

Complaint Department Busy

There were 11,445 complaints received by the Department of Transportation, a sizable jump over the 9,414 complaints received in 2011. Southwest Airlines, traditionally the industry leader in this category, was tops again with just 0.25 complaints per 100,000 customers. Alaska Airlines was next, at 0.51, and Delta was third, at 0.73.

United finished dead last, with 4.24 complaints per 100,000 passengers. Near the bottom were American Airlines (1.80) and US Air (1.74).

The grumbling from passengers had to do with the actual flight (32.7 percent), reservations and ticketing (14.6), customer service (14.3) and baggage problems (12.4). The price of flying was low on the list of complaints, accounting for only 4.4 percent.

The rise in the cost of flying has increased 26 percent since 2007, but has slowed dramatically the past year. Unstable jet fuel prices are one factor, and diminished competition is another. The recent mergers of some major airlines – Southwest and Air Tran in 2011; United and Continental in 2010; and Delta and Northwest in 2008 – has removed some of the competitive pricing wars and pushed fares slightly higher. The average ticket for the third quarter of 2012 was $380, $15 more than 2011.

It should be noted that federal taxes make up 20 percent of the cost of every airline ticket. That means that average ticket price of $380 includes $76 of federal taxes.

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