TRAVEL

Report: Virgin America best U.S. airline in 2012

The Associated PressApril 8, 2013 

Airline Quality

Private researchers, who have analyzed federal data on airline performance, say in a report released Monday, that consumer complaints to the Department of Transportation surged by one-fifth last year even though other measures such as on-time arrivals and mishandled baggage show airlines are doing a better job. "The way airlines have taken 130-seat airplanes and expanded them to 150 seats to squeeze out more revenue I think is finally catching up with them,” says Dean Headley, a business professor at Wichita State University, who has co-written the annual report for 23 years.

LYNNE SLADKY — The ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Flying high

    Here’s how the nation’s 14 largest airlines ranked for performance in 2012, as well as their position the previous year, according to a new report:

    1. Virgin America (*)

    2. JetBlue (3)

    3. AirTran (1)

    4. Delta (6)

    5. Hawaiian (2)

    6. Alaska (5)

    7. Frontier (4)

    8. Southwest (7)

    9. US Airways (8)

    10. American (10)

    11. American Eagle (15)

    12. SkyWest (9)

    13. ExpressJet (*)

    14. United (12)

    * New to the ranking this year ** To qualify for inclusion in the report, an airline must carry at least 1 percent of domestic passengers.

— Virgin America did the best job for its customers among leading U.S. airlines last year, a report said Monday, as carriers overall had their second best performance in the more than the two decades since researchers began measuring quality of service.

The report ranked the 14 largest U.S. airlines based on on-time arrivals, mishandled bags, consumer complaints and passengers who bought tickets but were turned away because flights were over booked.

Airline performance in 2012 was the second highest in the 23 years that Wichita State University in Kansas and the University of Nebraska at Omaha have tracked the performance of airlines. The airline’s best year was 2011.

Besides being overall leader, Virgin America, headquartered in Burlingame, Calif., also did the best job on baggage handling and had the second-lowest rate of passengers denied seats due to overbookings. United Airlines, whose consumer complaint rate nearly doubled last year, had the worst performance. United has merged with Continental, but has had rough spots in integrating operations of the carriers.

This is the first year Virgin America, created in 2007, has been large enough to be included in the rankings. United carries roughly 18 times more passengers than Virgin America, and has 702 planes, compared to 52 for the smaller carrier.

The number of complaints consumers filed with the Department of Transportation overall surged by one-fifth last year to 11,445 complaints, up from 9,414 in 2011.

“Over the 20-some year history we’ve looked at it, this is still the best time of airline performance we’ve ever seen,” said Dean Headley, a business professor at Wichita State University in Kansas, who has co-written the annual report. The best year was 2011, which was only slightly better than last year, he said.

Despite those improvements, it’s not surprising that passengers are getting grumpier, Headley said. Carriers keep shrinking the size of seats in order to stuff more people into planes. Empty middle seats that might provide a little more room have vanished. And more people who have bought tickets are being turned away because flights are overbooked.

“The way airlines have taken 130-seat airplanes and expanded them to 150 seats to squeeze out more revenue, I think, is finally catching up with them,” he said. “People are saying, ‘Look, I don’t fit here. Do something about this.’ At some point airlines can’t keep shrinking seats to put more people into the same tube,” he said.

The industry is looking at ways to make today’s smaller-than-a-broom closet toilets more compact in the hope of squeezing a few more seats onto planes.

“I can’t imagine the uproar that making toilets smaller might generate,” Headley said, especially given that passengers increasingly weigh more than they use to. Nevertheless, “will it keep them from flying? I doubt it would.”

The rate of complaints per 100,000 passengers also rose to 1.43 last year from 1.19 in 2011.

United’s 2012 ranking doesn’t reflect its experience over the past six months, in which the airline has made significant improvements in performance, spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said

“Customer satisfaction is up, complaints are down dramatically and we are improving our customers’ experience,” he said in an email.

The State is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service