Airline performance improves for third consecutive year, according to Airline Quality Rating

April 4, 2011

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Airline passengers are experiencing better performance by the airlines, even though it may cost them more to fly.

For the third consecutive year, the performance of the nation's leading carriers improved, according to the 21st annual national Airline Quality Rating. It was the third best overall score in the 20 years researchers have tracked the performance of airlines.

Released during a news conference at the National Press Club on Monday (April 4), the rankings show that of the 16 carriers rated for performance in both 2009 and 2010, nine airlines improved and seven airlines declined for 2010.

The Airline Quality Rating is a joint research project funded as part of faculty research activities at Wichita State University and Purdue University.

The industry improved in three of the four major elements of the AQR: on-time performance, baggage handling and involuntary denied boardings. Customer complaints is the only element where performance declined.

The higher rate of customer complaints is consistent with a busier air travel system, according to Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University.

"As the system adjusts to higher demand for air travel, more things are not going to go as planned for travelers. Nearly a third of the customer complaints for last year were for flight problems, such as unplanned schedule changes, delays and cancellations," Headley said.

"When you look at the past 10 years, you find that the airline industry performs most efficiently when the system isn't stressed by high passenger volume. Every time there are more planes in the sky and more people flying, airline performance suffers."

The challenge is whether airline performance quality can improve as more people choose to fly. Or does the infrastructure and technology limit what the airlines can do? 

"Further airline consolidation will continue to reduce the number of air carriers ranked in the AQR," said Brent Bowen, professor and head of the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University.

"Past AQR data suggests that the combining of two large air carrier operations often results in subsequent decreases in AQR rankings. 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."

An electronic version of the full report, with details on each airline, is available at

Inside this year's rating

Below is the 2011 numerical ranking of the nation's leading 16 airlines, according to the Airline Quality Rating, with the 2010 ranking in parentheses:

1. AirTran (2)
2. Hawaiian (1)
3. JetBlue (3)
4. Alaska (11)
5. Southwest (5)
6. US Airways (8)
7. Delta (15)
8. Continental (6)
9. Frontier (7)
10. SkyWest (14)
11. American (9)
12. United (13)
13. Mesa (12)
14. Comair (16)
15. Atlantic Southeast (17)
16. American Eagle (18)

The rankings changed most noticeably for Alaska Airlines (from 11 up to 4) and Delta Airlines (from 15 up to 7) for 2010. AirTran took the No. 1 ranked spot after two years as the second ranked airline. JetBlue (3) and Southwest (5) both maintained their top tier positions for 2010.

Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance (92.5 percent) for 2010, and Comair had the worst (73.1 percent). Eleven airlines improved their on-time arrival performance in 2010. Eight of the 16 airlines rated had an on-time arrival percentage of more than 80 percent. On-time for 2010 by the industry was 80.0 percent compared to 79.4 percent in 2009.

JetBlue had the lowest involuntary denied boardings rate at 0.01 per 10,000 passengers. American Eagle had the highest involuntary denied boardings rate at 4.02 per 10,000 passengers.

Overall, seven airlines improved their denied boardings rate in 2010. Comair recorded the largest improvement, and Mesa had the largest decline. JetBlue and Hawaiian are clearly the industry leaders in avoiding denied boarding incidents. Industry performance was better in 2010 (1.08 per 10,000 passengers) than it was in 2009 (1.19).

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 (7.15 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers) of all the airlines. 

Mishandled baggage was the most consistent area of performance improvement in 2010. Thirteen of 16 airlines improved their mishandled baggage performance for the year. The rate for the industry decreased from 3.88 per 1,000 passengers in 2009 to 3.49 in 2010.

Southwest again had the lowest consumer complaint rate (0.27 per 100,000 passengers) of all airlines. Delta had the highest consumer complaint rate (2.00 per 100,000 passengers) of all airlines rated.

Customer complaints per 100,000 passengers increased from 0.97 in 2009 to 1.22 in 2010. The majority of complaints were for flight problems (32.9 percent); baggage (15.9 percent); reservations, ticketing and boarding (13.1 percent); and customer service (12.9 percent).

More about Airline Quality Rating

As the nation's most comprehensive study of airline performance and quality, the Airline Quality Rating ( 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 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.

For a look at what 20 years of the Airline Quality Rating tells us, go to

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 Survey of Frequent Flyers at

Media contacts:

Joe Kleinsasser, Wichita State University 316-204-8266 (cell), or Shannon Littlejohn, Wichita State University, by phone 316-978-3820 or

Jim Schenke, Purdue News Service, 765-237-7296 (cell), or


Dean Headley: To reach Headley, call the Hilton Garden Inn in Washington, D.C., at 202-783-7800 and ask for the room of Dean Headley

Brent Bowen: 765-494-5782