Virgin America Tops List of Best Airlines; United Ranks Last

airline passenger complaints rise despite improvements
Lynne Sladky/AP

WASHINGTON -- U.S. airlines scored their second best performance last year in the more than two decades that researchers have been measuring airline quality, with Virgin America the leader, says an annual report released Monday.

The report ranked the 14 largest U.S. airlines based on on-time arrivals, mishandled bags, consumer complaints and passengers who were bought tickets but were turned away because flights were over booked.

Airline performance in 2012 was the second highest in the 23 years that Wichita State University at Omaha in Nebraska and Purdue University in Indiana have tracked the performance of airlines. The airline's best year was 2011.

Virgin America, headquartered in Burlingame, Calif., did the best job on baggage handling and had the second-lowest rate of passengers denied seats due to overbookings. United Airlines (UAL), whose consumer complaint rate nearly doubled last year, had the worst performance. United has merged with Continental Airlines, but has had rough spots in integrating the operations of the two carriers.

The number of complaints consumers filed with the Department of Transportation overall surged by one-fifth last year to 11,445 complaints, up from 9,414 in 2011.

"Over the 20 some year history we've looked at it, this is still the best time of airline performance we've ever seen," said Dean Headley, a business professor at Wichita State University in Kansas, who has co-written the annual report. The best year was 2011, which was only slightly better than last year, he said.

Despite those improvements, it isn't surprising that passengers are getting grumpier, Headley said. Carriers keep shrinking the size of seats in order to stuff more people into planes. Empty middle seats that might provide a little more room have vanished. And more people who have bought tickets are being turned away because flights are overbooked.

"The way airlines have taken 130-seat airplanes and expanded them to 150 seats to squeeze out more revenue, I think, is finally catching up with them," he said. "People are saying, 'Look, I don't fit here. Do something about this.' At some point airlines can't keep shrinking seats to put more people into the same tube," he said.

The industry is even looking at ways to make today's smaller-than-a-broom closet toilets more compact in the hope of squeezing a few more seats onto planes.

"I can't imagine the uproar that making toilets smaller might generate," Headley said, especially given that passengers increasingly weigh more than they use to. Nevertheless, "will it keep them from flying? I doubt it would."

The rate of complaints per 100,000 passengers also rose to 1.43 last year from 1.19 in 2011.

In recent years, some airlines have shifted to larger planes that can carry more people, but that hasn't been enough to make up for an overall reduction in flights.

The rate at which passengers with tickets were denied seats because planes were full rose to 0.97 denials per 10,000 passengers last year, compared with 0.78 in 2011.

It used to be in cases of overbookings that airlines usually could find a passenger who would volunteer to give up a seat in exchange for cash, a free ticket or some other compensation with the expectation of catching another flight later that day or the next morning. Not anymore.

"Since flights are so full, there are no seats on those next flights. So people say, 'No, not for $500, not for $1,000,' " said airline industry analyst Robert W. Mann Jr.

Regional carrier SkyWest (SKYW) had the highest involuntary denied-boardings rate last year, 2.32 per 10,000 passengers.

But not every airline overbooks flights in an effort to keep seats full. JetBlue Airways (JBLU) and Virgin America were the industry leaders in avoiding denied boardings, with rates of 0.01 and 0.07, respectively.

United Airlines' consumer complaint rate was 4.24 complaints per 100,000 passengers. Southwest Airlines (LUV) had the lowest rate, at 0.25. Southwest was among five airlines that lowered complaint rates last year compared to 2011. The others were American Eagle, Delta Air Lines (DAL), JetBlue and US Airways (LCC).

Consumer complaints were significantly higher in the peak summer travel months of June, July and August when planes are especially crowded.

"As airplanes get fuller, complaints get higher because people just don't like to be sardines," Mann said.

The complaints are regarded as indicators of a larger problem because many passengers may not realize they can file complaints with the Transportation Department, which regulates airlines.

At the same time that complaints were increasing, airlines were doing a better job of getting passengers to their destinations on time.

The industry average for on-time arrival rates was 81.8 percent of flights, compared with 80 percent in 2011. Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance record, 93.4 percent in 2012. ExpressJet and American Airlines had the worst records with only 76.9 percent of their planes arriving on time last year.

The industry's on-time performance has improved in recent years, partly due to airlines' decision to cut back on the number of flights.

"We've shown over the 20 years of doing this that whenever the system isn't taxed as much -- fewer flights, fewer people, less bags -- it performs better. It's when it reaches a critical mass that it starts to fracture," Headley said.

The industry's shift to charging for fees for extra bags, or sometimes charging fees for any bags, has significantly reduced the rate of lost or mishandled bags. Passengers are checking fewer bags than before, and carrying more bags onto planes when permitted.

The industry's mishandled bag rate peaked in 2007 at 7.01 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. It was 3.07 in 2012, down from 3.35 bags the previous year.

The report's ratings are based on statistics kept by the department for airlines that carry at least 1 percent of the passengers who flew domestically last year. The research is sponsored by Purdue University in Indiana and by Wichita State.


A breakdown of the ratings for the 14 largest U.S. carriers from a report being released Monday on airline quality by researchers at Purdue University and Wichita State University. The first score is for 2012; the second for 2011.
  • Air Tran: 0.91; 0.72
  • Alaska: 0.51; 0.48
  • American: 1.80; 1.46
  • American Eagle: 1.27; 1.45
  • Delta: 0.73; 1.23
  • ExpressJet: 1.07
  • Frontier: 1.05; 0.76
  • Hawaiian: 0.89; 0.70
  • JetBlue: 0.79; 1.08
  • SkyWest: 0.88; 0.73
  • Southwest: 0.25; 0.32
  • United: 4.24; 2.21
  • US Airways: 1.74; 1.91
  • Virgin America: 1.50
Note: 2011 rates weren't available for ExpressJet and Virgin America.Complaints-Glance.


(Updated at 12:35 EDT.)


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Delta is the best, I have been flying them ecer since Song was introduced. United and Delta are the only airlines that offer service to and from my destination. I flew this weekend on American and my flight was delayed and I was going to miss my conection, they were so rude and put me on a Delta flight. Delta gave me a upgrade because of my inconvience. Southwest to me is the worst, I hate lining up like cattle to board and not having assigned seats.

June 19 2013 at 12:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I flew Continental once, to Hawaii. They offered to upgrade me to first class for only $99 so I jumped on it and was very pleasantly surprised. The food was great, the service was great, the flight was simply enjoyable. When they merged with United everything apparently went to hell in a handbasket. Too bad, I planned on making Continental my airline of choice for future trips now I think I'm stuck with Delta.

June 18 2013 at 1:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mark Thompson

Problem is both United and Continental have been run by crooks for year. Now that they merged, they have taken the best crooks from Continental and forced their inefficient ways on United. The employees can't win and neither can the flying public. The only winners are the lousy management and it has been that way since deregulation. You want a better product from the majors, the best you can hope for is to reregulate airlines. And don't forget when you compare US airlines to foreign carriers that many of them have some financial support from their host countries unlike the US carriers who have to compete with overleveraged, tax protected mini airlines that start up and undercut the market and then go out of business.

April 10 2013 at 1:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Having extensively flown on business during the 80's and 90's, I can attest to United being the worst. Why they still exist is beyond me. They should have gone the way of Pan Am and Eastern. Does America West still exist? They are a close second to United. But as far as I am concerned, Southwest is the best. Never flew Virgin America and maybe they are better. But they would have to be exceptional to beat Southwest.

April 10 2013 at 12:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Is anyone surprised that United is the worst. They are the pits unless you are a first or business class person who flies weekly. Go Southwest!

April 09 2013 at 11:31 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The airlines are all terrible to customers.

April 09 2013 at 12:56 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Why isn't "Spirit" airlinws on the list as the worst on-time/servie/price list? Their record is dismal.

April 09 2013 at 11:32 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

u want cheaps seats, fly for 70's prices quit your whining or go back on the bus where you belong

April 09 2013 at 10:06 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

POOR CONTINENTAL just married the WORST Airline in the history of aviation

April 09 2013 at 9:15 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Pumpkinpie's comment


April 09 2013 at 5:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Glad to hear United Airlines is in last place...they should be! Just a recent example, we went to buy tickets at AAA for an upcoming trip and the price of the tickets increased over $400 per person in the 2 hours we were giving the route some thought and at the time, the agent told us the price we were quoted that minute was good for 24 hours. Oh, well, we canceled that trip and rescheduled another with Southwest!! When are airlines going to stop treating the paying flying public like bus passengers?!

April 09 2013 at 8:17 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to makeredhappy's comment

When they start charging more than buses!

April 09 2013 at 10:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply