Low-cost carriers -- AirTran, Jet Blue and Southwest -- took the top three spots in a national survey of airline quality, while the industry overall fared poorly amid rising fuel prices and increasingly fed-up consumers.
At the bottom of the list released Monday were Comair, American Eagle and in last place: Atlantic Southeast Airlines.
The past year "was the worst year ever for the U.S. airlines," said Brent Bowen, a study co-author and professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Aviation Institute. "Overall operational performance and quality declined once again to the lowest level that it's ever been."
The annual Airline Quality Rating survey found that more bags were lost, more passengers were bumped, more consumers complained and fewer flights arrived on-time than in the previous year. The overall "quality score" the researchers gave the industry (-2.16) was the lowest in the nearly two decades they've been studying the airlines.
The survey comes at a difficult time for the industry given rising fuel prices, safety problems and bankruptcy troubles that shut down three carriers last week. ATA, Aloha Airlines and Skybus stopped flying because of financial pressures.
Major airlines also have slashed jobs while adding fees for second bags, traveling with pets and booking tickets by phone. And American , Southwest , Delta and United airlines have all had to cancel flights recently to perform safety inspections on some of their planes.
According to the study, the rate of consumer complaints was up 60 percent last year. US Airways had the most complaints. Southwest had the fewest. In all, complaints were up for 15 of the 16 airlines included in the study. Mesa Airlines was the exception.
About 37 percent of the complaints were for flight problems, including canceled or averted flights, said Dean Headley, an associate professor at Wichita State University and co-author of the study. About 20 percent of the complaints concerned baggage -- stolen, lost or damaged. Another top complaint, at about 11 percent, was poor customer service.
On-time arrivals dropped for the fifth straight year, with more than one-quarter of all flights late, according to the survey. Southwest had the best on-time performance; Atlantic Southeast had the worst.
The rate of passengers bumped from overbooked flights also increased, up 13 percent. Jet Blue had the fewest bumped passengers; Atlantic Southeast had the most.
For lost bags, the industry overall had about seven mishandled bags for every 1,000 passengers -- up from 6.5 in 2006. AirTran had the fewest mishandled bags, four for every 1,000 passengers. Headley said Air Tran's good showing helped propel the airline from the No. 3 spot in the 2006 rankings to No. 1 last year.
Among the study's conclusions:
- The rate of consumer complaints about Mesa dropped by one-third and the airline also showed improvement in its rates of bumping passengers and mishandling bags.
- More than one-third of Atlantic Southeast Airlines flights were late, the worst on-time performance in 2007. The airlines also bumped passengers more often, at a rate of 4.5 per 10,000 passengers.
JetBlue and AirTran were far ahead of their competitors in avoiding bumping passengers from flights, at 0.02 and 0.15 per 10,000 passengers, respectively.
AirTran had the best baggage handling rate, at 4.06 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers.
American Eagle ranked last in baggage handling with 13.55 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers.