Airlines did better in 2009

WASHINGTON — Fewer passengers
boarded planes last year, but those who did were generally treated better than
in the past.

Planes were more likely to land on
time and bags less likely to get lost in 2009, according to an annual analysis
of airline quality by private researchers.

As a result, passengers reported
fewer complaints even while cash-strapped airlines reduced flight schedules and
charged for everything from bags and pillows to prime spots in boarding lines.

Airline performance has improved
over the past two years. U.S. air travel surged to 770 million passengers in
2007, when airline performance suffered a near meltdown. Last year, with nearly
70 million fewer passengers boarding planes, airlines did a much better job as
measured by such basics as on-time performance, mishandled bags, bumpings due
to overbooking and consumer complaints.

“We kind of turned a little bit of
a corner in ‘08 and we’re glad to say they’re continuing that generally positive
(trend) for the consumer,” said Dean Headley, a Wichita State University
professor and co-author of an annual analysis of airline quality. “Every
airline that we looked at in ‘08 and ‘09 got better.”

One cloud in the otherwise friendly
skies was a slight increase in denied boardings, mostly due to overbooking.

The report’s findings are based on
government statistics. An overall ranking of the 18 airlines was to be released
Monday.

The top rated airline in 2008 was
Hawaiian, which flies to ten U.S. mainland cities along with the Hawaiian
Islands and to the Philippines, Australia, Samoa and Tahiti. At the bottom was
Atlantic Southeast, which operates Delta Connection regional flights.

For 2009, American Eagle, which
operates regional flights for American Airlines, had the highest rate of
involuntary denied boardings at 3.76 per 100,000 passengers. Low-cost carrier
JetBlue had so few denied boardings that its rate showed up as zero.

Passengers didn’t check as many
bags last year, perhaps in part due to those annoying baggage fees. Fewer than
4 bags per every 1,000 travelers were lost or damaged. The rate for lost bags
last year was second best in the last 20 years and about half what it was in
2007.

Low-cost carrier AirTran fared best
last year, with a mishandled bag rate of 1.67. The worst: Atlantic Southeast,
at 7.87. Most of that airline’s flights start, end or stop at Atlanta’s
Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest airport.

The recession hit airlines hard,
and they have scrambled for ways to generate income other than by raising
fares. U.S. airlines collectively lost $8 billion in 2009, although regional
carriers as a group were profitable, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

More than 79 percent of airline
flights arrived on time in 2009, 3.4 percent better than a year earlier.
Fourteen of the 18 airlines included in the analysis improved their on-time
performance from the year before. At the bottom was regional carrier Comair,
with only 69 percent of flights on time. The airline, like Atlantic Southeast,
operates Delta Connection regional flights. Only slightly better was Atlantic
Southeast, 71.2 percent.

Fewer than one in every 100,000
passengers filed complaints with the Department of Transportation, down
slightly from the previous year. Southwest again had the lowest complaint rate
— 0.21 complaints per 100,000 passengers. Delta, whose regional partners had
the worst baggage and on-time performance, had the highest complaint rate,
1.96.

The ratings, compiled
annually since 1991, are based on department statistics for airlines that carry
at least 1 percent of the passengers who flew domestically last year. The
research is sponsored by Purdue University in Indiana, and by Wichita State
University in Kansas.

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