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Airline ‘Quality’ Down, but Just a Little

The overall “quality” of the 15 biggest U.S. airlines dropped slightly below their performance in 2012, but only from -1.08 to -1.11. So says the latest release of the annual “Airline Quality Rating” (AQR) scores. (Don’t be put off by the negative scores: The way the calculations work, scores are always negative, so the less negative, the better.) Overall, slight gains in on-time arrival and fewer mishandled bags were offset by more “bumped” travelers and more consumer complaints to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

AQR scores are a composite of four statistical measures compiled and reported by the DOT: on-time performance, how many travelers were denied boarding (“bumped”), how many bags the line mishandled, and how many complaints were logged by the DOT’s consumer program, all adjusted to a consistent per-passenger index.

Among individual airlines, the top scorer, overall, was Virgin America—in the system for the first time. Other lines in the top five were JetBlue, AirTran (still counted separately), Delta, and Alaska. The regionals generally score below the large lines across the board; the worst scorers among the large lines were United and American. Notable scorers in each individual category (excluding regionals):

  • On-Time Arrivals: Top scores went to Hawaiian, AirTran, and Delta; bottom scores went to American, United, and Frontier.
  • Bumped Passengers: Top scores went to JetBlue and Virgin America; bottom score went to United, by a big margin.
  • Mishandled Bags: Top scores went to Virgin America, AirTran, and JetBlue; bottom scores went to United, Southwest, and Alaska.
  • Complaints to DOT: Top scores went to Southwest, Alaska, and Delta; bottom score went to United, again by a big margin.

Overall, the scores contained few surprises. United’s generally poor showing indicates, among other factors, that it still hasn’t fully digested its merger with Continental. And relatively poor showings by both American and US Airways do not augur well for the future merged company. An increase in the number of bumped travelers probably reflects greater reluctance of oversold travelers to accept a seat on the “next flight” when the next available seat might be two days later. And the increase in complaints probably reflects the overall downgrading of the economy-cabin airline experience: fees, lousy seats, long lines, etcetera, etcetera.

Current-year AQR scores have generally been reasonably good predictors of future performance. Annual scores don’t change very fast and both winners and losers tend to be fairly consistent from year to year.

Since the beginning, I’ve had a big problem with the AQR scores and exactly what they measure. People typically define “quality” for any product or service in two dramatically different ways:

  • How good the product is, when delivered as the supplier promises.
  • How well the supplier delivers on what it promises.

The AQR scores reflect only the delivery side of quality—how closely each airline comes to meeting the basic obligations it has assumed. Thus, except for the complaints factor, the scores reflect more the absence of problems rather than any positive experience. And the scores have nothing to say about the many other factors that affect how much you might enjoy a flight—seat space, onboard service, in-flight entertainment, and such—nor do they account for the generosity (or stinginess) of the various lines’ frequent-flyer programs or the level of annoying fees and charges. The problem with delivery-based scores is, of course, that an airline can deliberately design and provide a poor product and still earn a good AQR score by delivering its poor product consistently.

AQR authors stress that scores are based entirely on “objective” statistical data, which necessarily reflect delivery rather than “how good is the product” measures. Nevertheless, when most of you select an airline, those “how good is the product” factors tend to outweigh the AQR factors by far, especially given the relatively small spread between top and bottom performance scores. And for the “how good” element of quality, my take—and that of many surveys—is that JetBlue still offers the best flight experience of any large domestic airline.

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

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