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Despite horrific incidents, airline service soars to record high

  • Despite horrific headlines last year, a new report says the quality of airline service hit a record high in 2017.
  • Airline quality service was measured by percentage of bags mishandled, on-time arrivals, denied boardings and complaints to the Department of Transportation.
  • "Three out of the four things we look at actually got better this year," said the report's author.

Despite a slew of headlines last year about airline customers having miserable, sometimes horrific experiences, a new report says the quality of airline service hit a record high in 2017.

"I would have to say overall the airline experience is getting better for most people, although there are still people that are disappointed," said Dean Headley, a professor at Wichita State University.

Headley and Dr. Brent Bowen from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University are the authors of the Airline Quality Rating. For the last 26 years they have calculated the performance of carriers based on four factors measured by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT): Percentage of bags mishandled, on-time arrivals, denied boardings and complaints to the DoT.

"Three out of the four things we look at actually got better this year," said Headley.

While the percentage of flights on time last year, 80.2 percent, was slightly lower than in 2016, there were also fewer complaints from passengers. In addition, carriers posted record low numbers for mishandled bags and for passengers being involuntarily bumped from flights.

In fact, denied boardings were down last year compared to 2016, as airlines changed their policies after a passenger was dragged off of a United Airlines plane. Video of the incident was so bad, it prompted a public outcry for airlines to drop, or dramatically reduce, the practice of overselling flights.

"We hope the industry got the message," said Headley. "It was a horrible message that we saw last spring. Certainly, from that point in time through the end of 2017, the industry as a whole cut its involuntary denied boardings."

Community members protest the treatment of Dr. David Dao, who was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight on Sunday by the Chicago Aviation Police, at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, April 11, 2017.
Kamil Krzaczynski | Reuters
Community members protest the treatment of Dr. David Dao, who was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight on Sunday by the Chicago Aviation Police, at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, April 11, 2017.

The other area where airlines are improving is with luggage. On average, carriers mishandle 2.46 bags per 1,000 passengers, according to DoT data. The improvement is due to a number of factors, including passengers checking fewer bags to avoid fees.

Meanwhile, airlines like Delta now route and track bags using RFID tags, which have tiny chips that communicate their location to scanners at airports.

"We are probably seventy to eighty percent more efficient than we were five years ago," said Mike Kotas, who oversees baggage operations at Delta's hub in Atlanta. "The technology has helped us save seconds and minutes so our people are more efficient moving bags and getting them where they need to go."

Among the four categories that make up the Airline Quality Rating, the top performances include Hawaiian Airlines having the best on-time arrival rate, and Delta bumping the lowest percentage of passengers. Spirit Airlines did the best job handling bags and Southwest had the lowest customer complaint rate with the Department of Transportation.

By comparison, Virgin America had the worst on-time arrival rate last year, and Express Jet mishandled the highest percentage of bags. Spirit's record with denied boardings and customer complaints was the worst, according to the DoT.

While the data may show airlines doing better than ever, Headley admits the industry has a long way to go when it comes to changing the perception that flying is not enjoyable. One problem is the seemingly endless stories on social media from passengers who had a bad flight.

"People have a tendency to want to relate their poor experience," he said. "Airlines don't seem to be doing a lot to change that pattern of behavior with people."

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