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Airline Hassles Increase With More Delays, Lost Bags, Study Says

Airline hassles are on the rise: More passengers found themselves bumped, their flights delayed or their bags lost last year than in 2005, a study found.

The annual review, released Monday, does not include recent weather-related flight delays such as the ones that left JetBlue and United Airlines planes idling for hours on taxiways.

"They just don't get it yet," said Dean Headley, an associate professor at Wichita State University and co-author of the study.

One upside, researchers said, was that the overall number of airline complaints has stabilized since hitting a five-year low in 2005.

Industry spokesman David Castelveter blamed the majority of delays on bad weather. Making matters worse, he said, more planes will be in the air in coming years and the air traffic control system cannot handle the growth.

"We're going to see more delays and those delays translate to cancellations, mishandled bags and unhappy passengers," said Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group for the major U.S. carriers. "It's not a pretty picture."

Congress needs to provide more money to update the system so it better can handle the increased traffic and weather problems, Castelveter said.

The Airline Quality Rating report, compiled annually since 1991, looked at 18 airlines and was based on Transportation Department statistics. The research is sponsored by the Aviation Institute at University of Nebraska at Omaha and Wichita State University.

Among the findings:

  • Southwest had the lowest number of complaints in 2006, 0.18 per 100,000 passengers. United and US Airways tied for the most, 1.36 per 100,000 passenger.
  • Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance (93.8%) for 2006, followed by Frontier Airlines (80.7%) and Southwest (80.2%). Atlantic Southeast Airlines had the worst on-time performance (66%). On-time was defined as within 15 minutes of the scheduled arrival time. Canceled and diverted flights counted as late.

The biggest disappointment is mishandled bags, Headley said.

Last year, for every 1,000 passengers, 6.50 bags were lost, stolen or damaged, compared with 6.06 in 2005. Hawaiian had the best baggage handling performance; Atlantic Southeast the worst.

The increase in lost bags comes as at least one domestic carrier -- Spirit Airlines -- plans a new fee for passengers who check their bags. Come June, Spirit will charge $5 each for one or two checked bags if the ticket was booked online and $10 each for passengers who do not book online.

Headley does not think the idea will fly with consumers who long have expected their ticket prices to included a checked bag or two.

"It will set off an absolute atomic bomb," he said.

On-time performance, the report said, worsened last year, with 75.5% of flights arriving on time, compared with 77.3% in 2005.

JetBlue Airways took a hit in February, when passengers on 10 planes spent from five hours to 10 1/2 hours sitting on runways at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York because of icy weather and gate congestion.

It took days for the airline to recover from the February storm and resume normal operations. It led JetBlue to establish a customer bill of rights promising vouchers to passengers who experience delays.

Overall, complaints about the airlines last year held steady at about 0.88 complaints for every 100,000 passengers. Nearly half the complaints were about flight problems or baggage.

The study found an increase in the number of passengers bumped or denied boarding because of oversold flights -- 1.01 denied boardings per 10,000 passengers last year, compared with 0.89 per 10,000 in 2005. JetBlue had the lowest rate of bumped passengers; Atlantic Southeast the highest.

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