The Best and Worst U.S. Airlines

Late flights, lost luggage and bumped passengers hurt 2009 airline performance.

April 13, 2010— -- As Airlines reduced flights and cut capacity last year, the major U.S. airlines managed in 2009 to increase their on-time performance, lose less baggage and actually have less consumer complaints, according to a new report on the airline industry.

The 20th annual national Airline Quality Rating, published jointly by Purdue University and Wichita State University, ranks the nation's leading airlines based on a variety of criteria including on-time arrivals, involuntary denied boardings, mishandled baggage and a combination of 12 customer complaint categories.

The overall rankings changed very little from 2008 to 2009, and the top four airlines -- Hawaiian Airlines, AirTran Airways, JetBlue and Northwest Airlines -- remained the same. Hawaiian repeated as the overall No. 1 ranked airline by a narrow margin over AirTran. The biggest change was Alaska Airlines, falling from a No. 5 ranking to No. 11.

Still, not everything was perfect. More passengers were involuntarily bumped from flights in 2009 than in 2008, thanks to more full flights and less options for airlines to reroute stranded passengers, according to the report.

"Airlines are focused on generating revenues, not necessarily on customer service," said one of the report's authors, Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University.

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As in past years, some of the worst-performing airlines were the regional carriers that handle more and more flights under the mainline carrier's name and logo.

At the very bottom of this year's list was American Eagle, the regional carrier of American Airlines. Just above it was Atlantic Southeast, which runs flights for both Delta Connection and United Express followed by Comair, which also runs regional flights for Delta.

American Eagle denied boarding to 3.76 out of every 10,000 passengers, that's up from 2.44 per 10,000 in 2008. The airline did improve its on-time performance, baggage handling and the number of consumer complains. But it still ranked at the bottom of most of those groupings. For instance, the mishandled baggage rate of 7.78 per 1,000 passengers in 2009 was an improvement over the 2008 number 9.89, but that's still well above the industry rate of 3.88 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers.

America's Best Airline

Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance (92.1 percent) for 2009, and Atlantic Southeast had the worst (71.2 percent). Fourteen airlines improved their on-time arrival performance in 2009.

JetBlue had the lowest involuntary denied boardings -- ticketed passengers who were refused a seat -- rate at 0.00 per 10,000 passengers. American Eagle had the highest involuntary denied boardings rate at 3.76 per 10,000 passengers.

It should be no surprise that Hawaiian, with its relatively small route network and consistently good weather, tops the list. The airline tops the industry in on-time performance and had the second-lowest rate of bumped passengers and lost or mishandled baggage rate of any airline.

Alaska still fared pretty well, but a large increase in involuntary denied boardings and a small increase in the rate of customer complaints brought down the airline's overall score and place in the rankings.

Below is this year's ranking of the nation's leading 18 airlines, according to the Airline Quality Rating, with last year's ranking in parentheses:

1. Hawaiian (1)

2. AirTran (2)

3. JetBlue (3)

4. Northwest (4)

5. Southwest (6)

6. Continental (8)

7. Frontier (7)

8. US Airways (10)

9. American (9)

10. ExpressJet (not ranked in 2009 report)

11. Alaska (5)

12. Mesa (14)

13. United (11)

14. SkyWest (13)

15. Delta (12)

16. Comair (15)

17. Atlantic Southeast (17)

18. American Eagle (16)