Airline performance improves to best ever, according to Airline Quality Rating

April 2, 2012

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Airline passengers are experiencing better overall performance for the fourth consecutive year, according to the 22nd annual national Airline Quality Rating.

It was the best overall score in the 22 years that researchers at Purdue University and Wichita State University have tracked airline performance. AirTran, Hawaiian and JetBlue retain their 2010 positions as the three best performing airlines, and 10 of 15 airlines improved compared to 2010.

The industry improved in all four major elements: on-time performance, baggage handling, involuntary denied boardings and customer complaints.

The better scores reflect airline industry efforts to improve in a post-9/11 era when airlines eliminated much of their excess seating capacity, according to Brent Bowen, professor and head of Purdue's Department of Aviation Technology.

"The airlines are getting their act together and seizing control of the situations in which they must perform," Bowen said. "But with an increasing demand for air travel, they must be careful to keep things on track."

Despite four consecutive years of improved airline performance, Bowen said the vast majority of frequent flyers complain about the airlines and fail to believe that airline performance is improving. Bowen attributes this to poor employee-customer relations and a media focus on rare, but colorful, employee meltdowns.

During 2011 airlines decreased the involuntary denied boarding rate by nearly 30 percent. Still, more than one-third of the customer complaints were for flight problems, such as unplanned schedule changes, delays and cancellations.

"For more than a decade the airlines have performed most efficiently when the system isn't stressed by high passenger volume and high numbers of airplanes in the air," Bowen said. "Every time there are more planes in the sky and more people flying, airline performance suffers."

Bowen is concerned that recent airline mergers will jeopardize gains in industry performance because it can take years for two airlines to successfully synchronize their systems and culture.

"We will be carefully watching to see if two highly rated carriers, such as No. 1 AirTran and No. 5 Southwest, will reverse this trend," Bowen said.

The most improved of the rated airlines was Frontier Airlines, moving up to No. 4 from No. 9. Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance (92.8 percent) for 2011, and JetBlue had the worst (73.3 percent).

Seven airlines improved their on-time arrival performance, pushing the industry rate up slightly to 80 percent.

JetBlue had the lowest involuntary denied boardings rate at 0.01 per 10,000 passengers. Mesa had the highest involuntary denied boardings rate at 2.27 per 10,000 passengers.

Overall, 10 airlines improved their denied boardings rate. American Eagle recorded the largest improvement, and Atlantic Southeast had the largest decline. JetBlue and Hawaiian are the industry leaders in avoiding denied boarding incidents. Industry performance was better (0.78 per 10,000 passengers) than it was in 2010 (1.08). Denied boardings was the most consistent area of performance improvement in 2011.

AirTran had the best baggage-handling rate (1.63 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers) of all airlines, and American Eagle had the worst baggage-handling rate (7.32 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers) of all the airlines.

Seven of 15 airlines improved their mishandled baggage performance for the year. The rate for the industry decreased from 3.49 per 1,000 passengers in 2010 to 3.35 in 2011.

Southwest again had the lowest consumer complaint rate (0.32 per 100,000 passengers) of all airlines. United had the highest consumer complaint rate (2.21 per 100,000 passengers).

Customer complaints per 100,000 passengers decreased from 1.22 in 2010 to 1.19 in 2011. The majority of complaints were for flight problems (34.9 percent); baggage (14.3 percent); customer service (12.1 percent); and reservations, ticketing and boarding (11.2 percent).

The Airline Quality Rating is the nation's most comprehensive study of airline performance and quality. It sets the industry standard, providing consumers and industry watchers a means to compare quality among airlines using objective performance-based data.

No other study in the country is based on such performance measures as 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.

The AQR research team invites all airline passengers to express their opinion in the online survey at

Writer: Jim Schenke, 765-237-7296,

Source: Brent Bowen, 765-494-5782,

Related websites:
Airline Quality Rating:
AQR customer survey:

Note to Journalists: Broadcast-quality sound bites of Brent Bowen addressing key AQR findings are available at An electronic version of the full report, including the rankings of all rated airlines, will be available after 9:30 a.m. (EDT) Monday (April 2) at Click on the "press release" tab to access the ratings.