It sure doesn't feel like it — wedged in the middle seat on a maxed-out flight, paying extra for baggage and begging for peanuts — but airlines are performing better than they have in more than two decades.
Just don't confuse "better performance" with "lower cost" or "more comfort."
Overall, airlines received better marks in the past year than they have at any time in the 22-year history of the Airline Quality Rating report.
Of the 15 carriers rated for performance in both 2010 and 2011, 10 airlines improved, four airlines declined, and one airline remained the same for 2011, according to the rankings issued Monday by joint university researchers at Purdue and Wichita State.
The industry improved in all four categories: on-time performance, baggage handling, involuntary denied boardings (getting bumped) and customer complaints. Ratings are based on data submitted to the Department of Transportation by the 15 airlines that carried the most passengers domestically last year.
The good news is that the top-rated airline by these measures is AirTran, which is now part of well-rated Southwest Airlines, the dominant carrier at Tampa International Airport. In fact, of the report's top 10 rated airlines, seven — AirTran, JetBlue, Frontier, Delta, Southwest, US Airways and American — operate flights in and out of TIA.
Frontier jumped the most, from ninth last year to fourth in this year's report. Some of the rated airlines, such as Continental, were recently acquired by others.
"Airlines are finally catching up with what their promise is, which is getting you there on time 80 percent of the time, with your bags," says Wichita State University business professor Dean Headley, who has co-written the annual report for 22 years.
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The bad news is for every plus an airline can brag about, the same company may have shortcomings. JetBlue, for example, managed to rank No. 3 overall and was the airline least likely to bump you from a flight. But it ranked last for arriving on time just 73 percent of the time.
To its credit, Southwest once again logged the lowest rate of passenger complaints. But it was the first in the industry last week to raise (along with subsidiary AirTran) ticket prices $4 to $10 per round trip to offset the cost of rising jet fuel.
Airfare hikes vary based on whether the passenger flies between major airports, or travels to or from a small or medium-sized airport, Headley says. The cost of air travel in small and medium cities is increasing as airlines cut back service to smaller airports.
Low-cost carriers that fly mostly between large hubs tend to fare the best in the airline quality study, he says.
U.S. air travel surged to 770 million passengers in 2007 — just before the recession struck — when airline performance suffered a near meltdown.
Ratings fell that year in every category. What soared? Complaints, by 60 percent to 1.42 per 100,000 passengers.
Since then, airline performance has improved. The 2012 report shows passenger complaints are down 20 percent from that 2007 peak.
That won't make that middle seat much better. But it's something.
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]