WASHINGTON, DC – As Virgin America claimed the top spot for the third consecutive year, overall U.S. airline performance slipped in 2014, according to the 25th annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR) released Monday at the National Press Club in Washington. The AQR is a joint research project funded as part of faculty research activities at Wichita State University (Wichita, Kan.) and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Ariz., campus.
After a best-ever year in overall performance in 2013, only three of 12 U.S. airlines evaluated actually improved this past year. And while one held steady, eight airlines declined.
Overall, the airline industry collectively declined in the AQR’s four core elements of the study: on-time performance, involuntary denied boardings, mishandled baggage and customer complaints.
Behind Virgin America, which has ranked No. 1 three years in a row, was Hawaiian Airlines (up from third in 2013) and Delta (up from fourth in 2013). The other airline that improved in overall performance in 2014 was Southwest, which rose from eighth to sixth place.
The airline industry has performed well in recent years, so a decline is a red flag for consumers, according to the researchers.
Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University, says the weaker overall performance shows that the recent round of mergers means airlines still have work to do to compete for customer loyalty.
“Bigger isn’t always better, and the downturn in performance suggests that customer perceptions of poor outcomes are warranted,” said Headley.
Study co-researcher Brent Bowen, dean of College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Ariz., campus, agreed.
“Airline mergers and consolidations are taking a systemic toll that is bad for consumers,” said Bowen. “Performance by the airlines is slipping while they claimed this would make them better.”
One of the airlines that improved its overall ranking during 2014 was Delta.
“Delta is an excellent example of a merger that declined in performance and systematically has clawed its way back to a new high level of quality performance,” Bowen said. “This shows that if an airline commits to improving their AQR rating, they can do it.”
The AQR score also reflects some of the complexities of an airline industry serving customers in a capacity-limited air travel system.
“When you look at the past 14 years, you find that the airline industry performs most efficiently when the system isn’t stressed by high passenger volume and high number of airplanes in the air,” said Headley. “With continued capacity limits and consolidation, one would hope that a less congested system would perform better. We did not see that in 2014.
“The challenge is whether airline performance quality improvements at this level can be maintained as more people choose to fly. Does the infrastructure and air traffic control technology limit what the airlines can actually do?”
Bowen says the answer to that question and others like it will be sought by researchers and the flying public in the years to come.
“With AQR performance factors in a state of overall decline, it is easy to understand why passengers and many of the airline employees they encounter are not happy and are significantly frustrated,” Bowen said. “With the high profits being realized by airlines, it is evident they are not investing in customer service and restoring employee concessions given up during the economic decline.
“The airlines have a duty to maximize service to the American public given the trust we provided them through a very low regulatory environment.”
An electronic version of the full report, with details on each airline, is available at http://airlinequalityrating.com.
Inside this year’s rating
Below is the 2014 numerical ranking of the nation’s leading 12 airlines, according to the Airline Quality Rating, with the 2013 ranking in parentheses:
1. Virgin America (1)
2. Hawaiian (3)
3. Delta (4)
4. JetBlue (2)
5. Alaska (5)
6. Southwest (8) (includes AirTran)
7. American (9) (includes USAirways)
8. Frontier (11)
9. United (12) (includes Continential)
10. SkyWest (14)
11. ExpressJet (13)
12. Envoy/ American Eagle (15)
Virgin America remained No. 1 in 2014. Hawaiian and Delta improved in the rating, to No. 2 and No. 3 respectively. The ranking positions were affected by the consolidation of several airlines, lowering the number of positions available.
Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance (91.9 percent) for 2014, and Envoy/American Eagle had the worst (68.8 percent).
Only three airlines improved their on-time arrival performance in 2014. Four of the 12 airlines rated had an on-time arrival percentage of better than 80 percent. On-time performance for the industry in 2014 was 76.2 percent, compared to 78.4 percent in 2013.
Virgin America and Hawaiian are clearly the industry leaders in avoiding denied boarding incidents with a rate of 0.09 and 0.12 per 10,000 passengers, respectively. ExpressJet and SkyWest had the highest involuntary denied boarding rate at 2.71 per 10,000 passengers for both airlines.
Two airlines improved their denied boardings rate in 2014. Delta recorded the greatest improvement, and ExpressJet had the largest decline.
Overall, the industry had 0.92 denied boardings per 10,000 passengers in 2014, compared to 0.89 in 2013.
Virgin America had the best baggage handling rate (0.95 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers) of all airlines, and Envoy/American Eagle had the worst baggage handling rate (9.02 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers).
Only five airlines had improved mishandled baggage rates in 2014. The industry rate increased from 3.21 per 1,000 passengers in 2013 to 3.62 in 2014.
Alaska had the lowest consumer complaint rate (0.42 per 100,000 passengers) of all airlines. Frontier had the highest consumer complaint rate (3.91 per 100,000 passengers).
Customer complaints per 100,000 passengers increased from 1.13 in 2013 to 1.38 in 2014. The majority of complaints (74 percent) to the Department of Transportation were for flight problems (37.8 percent), baggage (14.3 percent), reservations, ticketing and boarding (11.3 percent) and customer service (10.6 percent).
More about the Airline Quality Rating
As the nation’s longest running study of airline performance quality, the Airline Quality Rating (http://airlinequalityrating.com) sets the industry standard, providing consumers and industry watchers a means to compare performance quality among airlines using objective performance-based data.
No other study in the country is based on performance measures like the AQR. Criteria included in the report are screened to meet two basic elements: They must be readily obtainable from published data sources for each airline, and they must be important to consumers regarding airline quality. The resulting criteria include areas such as baggage handling, customer complaints, denied boardings and on-time arrivals.
Reports from consumers to the AQR researchers have become increasingly popular during the past several years, say Bowen and Headley. The co-authors invite the flying public to participate in the Annual Passenger Survey at http://www.wichita.edu/aqrconsumersurvey.
About Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the world’s largest, fully accredited university specializing in aviation and aerospace, is a nonprofit, independent institution offering more than 75 baccalaureate, master’s and Ph.D. degree programs in its colleges of Arts & Sciences, Aviation, Business, Engineering and Security & Intelligence. Embry-Riddle educates students at residential campuses in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Prescott, Ariz., through the Worldwide Campus with more than 150 locations in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and through online programs. The university is a major research center, seeking solutions to real-world problems in partnership with the aerospace industry, other universities and government agencies. For more information, visit www.embryriddle.edu, follow us on Twitter (@EmbryRiddle) and facebook.com/EmbryRiddleUniversity, and find expert videos at YouTube.com/EmbryRiddleUniv.
About Wichita State University
Since 1895, Wichita State University has been the linchpin of higher education in south-central Kansas by combining a traditional college experience with the advantages of being located in the state’s cultural and industrial hub. Together with local government and the Wichita business community, WSU has built one of the most unique partnerships in Kansas, one that over the years has propelled each to new heights. It’s a relationship that both supplies the lifeblood of a thriving community and makes it possible to provide the most well-rounded education in the region. In 2012, Wichita State was ranked third among all U.S. universities in money spent on aerospace research and development. For more information, visit www.wichita.edu