America's Meanest Airlines 2014

America's Meanest Airlines 2014
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
By Miriam B. Weiner

The 2014 Airline Quality Rating report, released Monday, shows that United Airlines is finally beginning to recover from its merger with Continental Airlines, which took place in 2010. But that wasn't enough to keep United from earning the lowest AQR score of all national airlines for the fourth year in a row.

In Pictures: Full list of America's Best and Worst Airlines 2014

In previous years, United (UAL) reported more customer complaints than any other major American carrier. However in 2013, the airline saw the number of grievances received drop significantly. The airline also improved in the other three categories used to calculate the AQR scores.

Any American-based carrier that handles more than 1 percent of the airline industry's domestic passenger revenue must report its on-time arrival percentage, number of involuntary denied boardings (or bumps), mishandled baggage rates and the number of complaints it receives to the U.S. Department of Transportation on a monthly basis. The AQR report -- which includes both national airlines and smaller regional carriers like SkyWest (SKYW) and ExpressJet -- uses that data to assign a rating that represents each airline's annual performance. Each airline is then assigned a rank number based on its AQR score.

The airline that received the lowest score this year was regional carrier American Eagle Airlines, which saw a drop in its on-time arrival percentage, and increases in denied boardings, mishandled baggage and customer complaint rates.

Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University's W. Frank Barton School of Business and co-author of the AQR report, notes that airlines experience some drop in performance following a merger. Headley, who holds a doctorate in marketing and statistics, notes that this is due in large part to employees feeling anxious about how changes to the company will affect them directly. "There's going to be a certain amount of angst, and that has a tendency to destroy performance," Headley said.
"A lot of it has to do with the perceptions of the front-line people. There's always a group that doesn't feel well-served, so they don't serve well for awhile." He pointed to the spike in AirTran's mishandled baggage rate as an example; AirTran is in the process of merging with Southwest Airlines (LUV).

United wasn't the only airline to receive fewer consumer complaints in 2013. Headley notes that the number of total grievances reported to the Department of Transportation dropped significantly from 2012. Headley speculates that the change could be because people have less to complain about, but also because they don't expect as much from airlines when it comes to customer service.

"My expectations are lower than they were two or three years ago," he said. "The best thing I can say about a flight is that it was uneventful. I don't think I'm that far off from what most people's expectations are."

Headley -- who has co-authored the AQR report with Brent Bowen, dean of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's College of Aviation, since 1991 -- notes that air travel has improved immensely over the past decade, and he believes that airlines want to improve passenger experience. But whether or not carriers will make efforts to continue improving their customer service will depend on their revenue. "When the airlines are making money and they're not trying to skimp, maybe they can make the experience better," Headley said.

However, we might be at a point where this is "as good as it can get," Headley speculated, citing fluctuating performance averages as hints that the industry has plateaued when it comes to boosting service.

U.S. News has identified the five national carriers that received the lowest AQR scores this year and highlighted the performance areas that could be improved.

Note: The Airline Quality Ratings report doesn't categorize airlines as major or regional carriers, nor does it classify any airline as "mean."

5. Southwest Airlines - AQR Score: -1.06

Southwest's performance worsened in three out of the four categories used to calculate the Airline Quality Ratings. Although the drop wasn't as significant as the one AirTran (Southwest's partner airline) experienced, the low cost carrier's percentage of flights arriving on time did fall below the industry average in 2013, with only 76.7 percent of flights landing on time. Southwest also performed below the industry average when it came to handling luggage and getting passengers on the planes. According to the AQR report, Southwest experienced 3.72 occurrences of lost or mishandled bags per every 1,000 passengers in 2013 -- the highest rate of the 11 major airlines evaluated. Meanwhile, the carrier's rate of denied boardings (1.06 out of every 10,000 passengers) exceeded the industry average. Still, Southwest Airlines received the smallest number of consumer complaints of all the airlines represented in the report.

4. American Airlines - AQR Score: -1.10

American Airlines (AAL) made major strides in improving its mishandled baggage rates in 2012, reducing the number of instances from 3.55 instances per every 1,000 passengers in 2011 to 2.92. But the airline couldn't hold on to that momentum; its mishandled baggage rate climbed ever so slightly to 3.02 per every 1,000 passengers in 2013. This airline was also one of only two carriers to improve its timeliness this year, though the 78.1 on-time arrival percentage still rests just below the industry average. The same improvement was not demonstrated on American's regional carrier, American Eagle, which saw its percentage of on-time arrivals plummet nearly 12 percent in 2013. American Eagle also has the worst reputation of all 15 airlines when it comes to luggage, with 5.9 instances of mishandled bags occurring per every 1,000 passengers in 2013.

3. AirTran - AQR Score: -1.20

AirTran -- now more integrated with Southwest Airlines than it was at this time last year -- saw a major dip in its performance in 2013. In last year's AQR report, AirTran received a score of -0.51, making it the third-highest rated airline. In 2013, AirTran's percentage of on-time flight arrivals dropped from 87.1 in 2012 to 79.4, and its rate of denied boardings inched upward from 0.95 out of every 10,000 passengers in 2012 to 1.29. The carrier's adoption of its partner airline's free checked bags policy could account for the rise in instances of lost or mishandled bags (up from 1.58 per every 1,000 passengers in 2012 to 3.71). Yet like Southwest, AirTran maintains a good reputation among travelers: The airline received a mere 0.73 customer complaints per every 100,000 passengers in 2013, down from 0.91 in 2012.

2. Frontier Airlines - AQR Score: -1.35

Frontier's performance sank across nearly every category evaluated in the AQR report. The airline's on-time arrival rates fell from 77.9 percent in 2012 to 73.1 percent in 2013 -- the lowest of the 11 major carriers evaluated. Frontier also saw its rate of involuntary denied boardings climb, with 1.23 bumps recorded per every 10,000 passengers (compared to 0.78 in 2012). The airline did manage to improve its baggage handling -- 2.15 instances of lost or mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers (compared to 2.22 in 2012) falls well below the industry average of 3.21. But that slight improvement wasn't enough to pacify consumers. Frontier received the highest number of consumer grievances of any airline evaluated for the 2014 report, with 3.09 complaints filed per every 100,000 passengers in 2013.

1. United Airlines - AQR Score: -1.43

Following its merger with Continental Airlines in 2010, United saw the quality of its performance take a nosedive: This major national carrier received the lowest AQR score three years in a row. Last year, United received more than four consumer complaints per every 100,000 passengers, which was the highest rate of all the airlines evaluated. But United saw significant improvement across the board in 2013: Along with American Airlines, United was the only other airline to better its on-time arrival performance, and fewer people were bumped from flights this past year (down from 1.83 occasions per 10,000 passengers in 2012 to 1.17). As a result, United saw the number of complaints it received plummet by nearly 50 percent from 4.24 grievances per 100,000 travelers in 2012 to 2.14 in 2013.

In Pictures: Full list of America's Best and Worst Airlines 2014

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Won't fly Southwest because that airline simply refuses to provide seat assignments and I will not board a plane like cattle, fighting to not be herded into a middle seat. United, well, good luck getting on any of their flights into or out of Chicago or Denver if there is even a hint of rain or snow within 100 miles.

April 10 2014 at 3:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I flew UAL in October of last year and could not have asked for better service. I am handicapped and they were absolutely great. I'm sorry to hear that others haven't had this experience with UAL. My flights were from Ca to WV to Boston and back to CA -- treatment was fantastic at all airports.

April 10 2014 at 1:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

That sounds like over 20 years ago! I flew them (United) coming home here from O'Hara, after 7 hours in the air on a KLM flight, from Holland. The United flight was a very "long'-short flight. The stewardess was rude to me,( came in on a stand-by) and her tone of voice to me, was not very friendly customer service. I don't know why or what happened, for me to get that kind of treatment. I will never fly United again, to go anywhere! If people tell me they flew United, I tell them I will never fly United, and there are other, better airlines to fly.

April 09 2014 at 5:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

BTW In 2009 my sister & I flew UAL from CA to London, UK and the stewardess was amazingly rude. Honestly, I'm no Alec Baldwin, I always turn off my phone etc., say please and thank you, don't cram an oversized bag in the overhead, I don't like alcohol on a trip cuzI prefer to be sober if there's an emergency and I stay in my seat etc. but about 9:00 PM I needed some water and walked back to the galley (they'd all been MIA for quite a while) where they were all relaxing and asked politely for some water. The "stew" sighed heavily, rolled her eyes and slapped a bottle of water in my hand and went back to her conversation. Early in the A.M. they handed out frozen egg & ham sandwiches just before landing which all ended up in the airport trash bin. I wondered, if you're not going to heat them up or at least thaw them out, why bother distributing them? Seriously!

April 09 2014 at 5:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


April 09 2014 at 4:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Two things you should know before flying UNITED Airlines:1- Regulations require airlines to pay for accommodations for passengers if canceled flights strand them overnight and 2- UNLESS flights are cancelled due to weather the airline has to give you "flight rewards" as compensation. In 2013 my 2 sisters & I (all seniors and somewhat handicapped) were flying UAL from CA to MN for a wedding. Our flight had a mid-day stop-over in Denver that UAL cancelled "due to weather" THE DOPPLER SHOWED CLEAR AND SUNNY FROM DENVER TO MINNEAPOLIS! After waiting in line for 2+ hours to find out what the airline had in store for us, we waited another few hours until that evening we were flown from Denver to O'Hare (not our original itinerary) and left to spend the night in the airport from midnight to 7:00 AM when we were finally flown to MN. That way UAL did not have to pay us anything NOR put us up for the night. I ended up in the ER with stroke symptoms as a result of this treatment by UNITED AIRLINES!! THANKS SO MUCH...NEVER AGAIN will I fly UAL. We have another family wedding in June. This time the "golden girls" are flying Southwest Airlines, they have always treated me well!

April 09 2014 at 4:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tom P

Thats because the employees own United Airlines and dont give a chit about us

April 09 2014 at 12:38 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Tom P's comment

you don't know what you are talking about Tom P. Employees do not own UAL.. Get your facts straight before you post untruths.

April 09 2014 at 6:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply