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A Closer Look at the Latest DOT Airline Scores

"Airlines improve" has been the common headline response to this month's Air Travel Consumer Report, and, in aggregate, that's true. Most of the latest composite and average scores (some for the first half, some for the second quarter, and some for June of 2012) were at historic highs—including the somewhat contradictory fact that complaints were also high. The key measures reflect how well the domestic airlines did against what they said they would do: arrive on time, cancel as few flights as possible, deliver checked baggage, and honor reservations. So far, they have generally done well in 2012. But in keeping with the old adage that "a statistician is someone who drowns while wading in a three-foot-deep river," it's useful to take a closer look at the data. Detailed data cover 16 lines in all: the 15 lines that carry 1 percent or more of total passengers, plus Mesa Airlines.

On Time Arrivals. The metric is the percentage of flights that arrive within 15 minutes of schedule. Overall, 82.6 percent of scheduled flights arrived on time in the first quarter and 83.4 percent in the second. But there's a substantial spread among the individual lines: In the second quarter, perennial winner Hawaiian scored an impressive 94.4 percent and problem-plagued United (now including the former Continental) came in last at 76.4 percent. Other lines in the 90s and high 80s included AirTran, Delta, Mesa, Skywest, US Airways, and Virgin America; Express Jet and Frontier joined United in the 70s.

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Airports, too, make a difference. In June, among the major hubs and gateway cities, Salt Lake City topped the list at 89.1 percent on time, followed by Phoenix, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Atlanta in the high 80s. At the other end, often-foggy San Francisco came in last at a dismal 68.2 percent, with Newark almost as bad at 68.5 percent. All the others were in the 70s or 80s. These results are enough to make you think about avoiding connections in Newark or San Francisco and question the conventional wisdom of avoiding connections in high-scoring Salt Lake City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Detroit. A further finding, however, does support conventional wisdom: The later in the day your scheduled arrival, the greater your chances of delay.

Cancellations. Although the average percent of flights cancelled was an admirable 1.1 percent in June, American Eagle was almost twice as likely to cancel as the average. Among the giant legacy lines, American and United both cancelled 1.5 percent of flights. At the other end of the scale, Delta, AirTran, Frontier, Hawaiian, and Virgin America cancelled less than 0.5 percent.

Mishandled Baggage. The metric is the number of mishandled baggage reports filed by passengers per 1,000 passengers. The average for the first half of 2012 was 2.97, but the results ranged from an excellent 0.88 on Virgin America and 1.43 on AirTran to a dismal 5.52 on American Eagle and 5.48 on ExpressJet. Among the giants, United came in last at 3.75.

Bumping. Although 144,000 travelers were overbooked in the second quarter, only 16,000 were bumped "involuntarily." The large majority accepted whatever bribe their airline offered to take a later flight. Rates per 10,000 passengers ranged from a minuscule 0.02 on JetBlue and Virgin America and 0.05 on Hawaiian to 2.58 on Mesa; among the giants, United scored most poorly at 2.11.

Complaints. For the first half of the year, Southwest remained the usual champ at 0.25 complaints per 100,000 passenger enplanements, with Mesa, Alaska, AirTran, and Hawaiian all scoring well. Among the giants, United, at 3.76, scored below its nearest low-end rival US Airways by a factor of two.

Given the generally improved record of delivery, the increase in complaints may seem puzzling.

Industry pundits ascribe it to some combination of crowded planes, indifferent personal service, and the piling on of unpopular fees. I don't have any better insight, except to note that coach class air travel these days is a miserable experience almost all the time, on any line. And it isn't likely to get better anytime soon.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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