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Surprising New Study Says Airlines Are Doing a Good Job

It may seem like the airline industry is collapsing into an anti-flyer, fee-happy machine of misery, but a new study says otherwise. The 2011 results from a well-known annual industry survey are in, and the findings reveal that U.S. airlines are shaping up in a big way.

The study, called the Airline Quality Rating (AQR), was developed by researchers at Purdue and Wichita State universities and focuses on performance data for 15 major U.S. airlines. AQR analysts looked at published Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics for on-time arrivals, bumping (denying seats to passengers on overbooked flights), lost luggage, and customer complaints. Using a mathematical formula, the analysts ranked major domestic carriers based on level of total quality.

AirTran—for the third year in a row—has come out on top, with Hawaiian and JetBlue following in second and third place, respectively. Here are the rankings in order based on the results of the AQR study: AirTran, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Frontier, Alaska, Delta, Southwest, US Airways, SkyWest, American, Continental (which now operates as United), United, Atlantic Southeast, Mesa, and American Eagle.

AirTran, the carrier with the overall highest quality rating, had the lowest number of mishandled bags for the third year in a row. Hawaiian ranked number one in on-time performance. And JetBlue bumped fewer passengers than any other airline, coming in first in the denied-boarding category.

But even the carriers lagging at the end of the list have bragging rights this year. On the whole, the airline industry—despite all the recent news of shrinking seats and panicking pilots—seems to be getting better. According to AQR, fewer bags were lost, more planes arrived on time, and fewer passengers issued complaints in 2011 when compared to 2010.

Part of the reason the airlines saw fewer late flights probably had to do with a mostly mild winter at the end of 2011. Still, the numbers show that the industry may be making significant strides. Dean Headley, a coauthor of the study, told the AP,”[The airlines] realize that people are paying a lot more money, and the system is more complex than it was, and they have to do a better job. To their credit, I think they are doing a better job.”

What do you think? Are the airlines really improving?

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Photo: Shutterstock/Ilja Masik)

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