Air Travel Is Improving, Right?

The U.S. Department of Transportation released its January 2013 Air Travel Consumer Report covering operations of the 16 largest U.S. carriers in November 2012.

According to the report, 85.7 percent of flights arrived within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival times—second only to November 2009, which was a record at 88.6 percent. And 99.7 percent of all U.S. airline passengers had their bags properly handled.

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The stats are being heralded by some as resounding evidence that air travel is on the upswing.

According to Nicholas Calio, chief of airline-booster association A4A, "Flying continues to improve as our members deliver on their commitment to providing airline passengers with a safe, reliable, and on-time experience. November proved no exception as U.S. airlines produced some of their strongest on-time arrival and baggage handling results."

The A4A news release also noted that customer complaints for November were reduced for the fourth consecutive month.

Quantitative measures are welcome, certainly, and have their uses. But are these really the issues that are uppermost in the minds of travelers?

Although delayed flights and mishandled bags are certainly among the irritants endured and bemoaned by flyers, they're not the primary reasons consumers repeatedly rank airlines as among their least-trusted companies.

And when travelers contact me with complaints—as they do on a regular basis—it's much less likely to be about operational issues than it is to be about the airlines' onerous fees, misleading ads or offers, rude or incompetent service, devalued frequent-flyer benefits, and so on.

The performance metrics tracked by the DOT simply don't correlate with travelers' overall satisfaction quotient.

Indeed, the DOT report shows that even as flight reliability and baggage handling improved, complaints lodged against U.S. airlines increased year-over-year, from 644 in November 2011 to 688 in November 2012.

The challenge for the airlines: Determine what's really important to their customers, even if it's not readily measurable, and deliver it consistently and at affordable prices.

A "safe, reliable, and on-time experience" isn't the end; it's just the beginning.

Reader Reality Check

What is your biggest complaint about the current state of air travel?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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