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Airlines: For better or for worse?

SmarterTravel

Has airline service bottomed out? Will things get better the rest of the year? Or will airline quality continue its decades-long slide?

I was asked those questions recently, not by a visitor to SmarterTravel.com, but by the producer of a cable TV network. She had just seen a preview of the newly released Airline Quality Ratings report for 2006 and already had a guest lined up to say that next year will be better. She came to me while looking for a guest to argue that it will be worse, but lost interest when I expressed a “fair and balanced” position—and when she learned the only studio near my hometown capable of uploading a TV interview was five hours away from my house. But the questions are interesting, so I’ll answer them here, TV or no.

Airline Quality Ratings

Airline Quality Ratings (AQR) for 18 of the largest U.S. airlines are compiled and issued every year by professors at two Midwestern universities. They’re based strictly on statistics reported by the Department of Transportation, and therefore avoid the biases that inevitably creep into traveler surveys. The score for each line is a weighted composite of data for on-time arrivals, denied boardings (“bumped” travelers), mishandled baggage, and complaints filed with the DOT’s consumer office.

The total industry score dropped a bit in 2006. Here is my take on what’s likely to happen for the next year in the various AQR categories.

On-time arrivals

I see two conflicting trends here:

  • The winter of 2006-2007 was one of the worst on record for weather-related airline problems, especially in the Northeast. One of the many results of the two big service “meltdowns” was a renewed call for an air passengers’ bill of rights. Whether or not Congress actually passes such a bill is its own issue, but the threat alone will have a major impact. The airlines will now feel strong pressure to cancel rather than delay when the weather sours. That means, paradoxically, fewer delays—but travelers involved will probably get to their final destinations later rather than earlier.
  • The federal government and local airports charge airlines for use of airport and airways capacity, and this encourages airlines to fly too many flights in too small planes. And whatever the weather, too many planes chasing inadequate airport and airways capacity—especially in and around the major hub airports—means more delays.

My prediction: With average weather, more congestion delays. With really bad weather, lots more cancellations.

Denied boardings

I don’t see much change here. Some airlines are obviously better at predicting loads than others, and that disparity will continue. If anything, improved IT systems will ease the overall problem somewhat.

Mishandled baggage

Mishandled baggage is one of the several negative byproducts of delays and congestion, and the risk of mishandled bags has increased due to security regulations that discourage carry-on baggage. I don’t see noticeable improvements any time soon.

Complaints

Complaints will probably decrease—not because airline performance will get any better, but instead because consumers are increasingly fatalistic about the effectiveness of their complaints. “If it doesn’t do any good, why bother?”

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