It's far easier to measure the things that can lead to dissatisfaction -- how long travelers are stuck on the tarmac, how many flights are overbooked, the average wait time at a check-in counter. But there are a handful of studies that attempt to provide insight for travelers.
How do U.S. airlines stack up to their peers worldwide? In a word, horribly.
Travelers only have to look to the 2012 World Airline Awards to see that in the ranking of all the world's airlines, the U.S. simply is losing altitude. The first U.S carrier appears at slot 49. That airline, Alaska Airlines, earned the right to be rated as the top North American carrier, too. Yes, folks, the 49th best airline in the world is No. 1 here at home.
Service With a Strained Smile
Alaska Airlines shows up again in the annual North America Airline survey by J.D. Power & Associates where the carrier again earns the top spot (without any of the 48 international peers to stand in its way). The survey offers a closer look at how our home-country fleet is serving our needs.
Evidently satisfaction is improving. Sort of.
Travelers are also happier -- again, just slightly -- with the check-in experience than they were when asked last year. It's not that check-in has gotten easier. It's primarily because more passengers are bypassing the counter entirely to use mobile tools and check-in kiosks.
And if it seems like more airline personnel are smiling these days, it's not your imagination -- it's good business. The J.D. Power study found that travelers greeted with a smile were more satisfied than those who weren't. (If you want to avoid the rudest airlines, Airfarewatchdog.com's study can help guide you toward happier carriers.) Though smiles and upbeat employees probably aren't as helpful as on-time departures and luggage that makes it to the final destination on time.
How Airlines Really Doing
Perhaps the most accurate portrayal of the industry comes from Purdue University, which tracks airline quality in its Airline Quality Rating report.
That monthly study tracks 15 different aspects of airline travel that impact customers, including on-time arrivals, mishandled baggage, and overbooked flights, as well as how pets are handled, discrimination complaints, and a variety of ticketing and booking woes. Award categories run the gamut from best airline to best cabin to best seats, and votes on staff service, lounges, and catering. It's offers a straight-up quantitative measure of performance factors and is a must-read for frequent travelers.
Among other findings, AQR reports that customer complaints increased from 2011 to 2012, as did the number of customers bumped from flights.
The AQR report found Virgin America to be the highest-performing among the 14 U.S.-based carriers it studied. The California-based airline is 25 percent owned by The Virgin Group, and was designed by British entrepreneur Richard Branson.
And how did Alaska Airlines, the top dog from the J.D. Power study and World Airline Awards' best North American airline, fare in AQR's assessment? Not so well. The AQR report reveals that the survey darling of the year, Alaska Airlines, actually had an increase of bumped passengers and a higher rate of mishandled baggage than in 2011.
Add International Flavor to Your Domestic Travel
What's a traveler to do? With the expansion of international carriers in the North American market, it's becoming easier to avoid the U.S.-based carriers altogether.
Websites like Airline Network News & Analysis provide information on new routes. Booking flights on the first few days of a new route offers savings similar to seeing a play when it's in previews.
Experimenting with partner carriers in rewards programs can also reveal opportunities on little-known airlines.
Lastly, avoid getting socked with surprise fees. A site like Kayak, which maintains a list of fees for the major carriers, with links to each airline's fee policies worldwide, can help travelers understand baggage and other fees, and avoid surprises at the check-in counter.