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The Best-Ranked U.S. Airlines

SmarterTravel

The 2015 Airline Quality Rating report, a joint undertaking by professors at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical and Wichita State universities, was published this week with its annual review and rankings of U.S. airlines’ performance during the previous year.

The study incorporates 15 elements in four areas of airline performance: mishandled bags, on-time arrivals, denied boardings, and customer complaints. The report synthesizes data compiled by the DOT for its monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, and assigns U.S. airlines a higher or lower AQR (Airline Quality Rating) accordingly.

For 2014, the winners and losers, from best to worst, are as follows:

  1. Virgin America
  2. Hawaiian
  3. Delta
  4. JetBlue
  5. Alaska
  6. Southwest
  7. American
  8. Frontier
  9. United
  10. SkyWest
  11. ExpressJet
  12. Envoy Air

Among the report’s conclusions:

  • The Airline Quality Rating industry score for 2014 shows an industry that declined in overall performance quality over the previous year. As an industry, performance in 2014 was worse than the previous four years.
  • Hawaiian Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Virgin America are the only rated airlines that showed improvement in AQR scores in 2014.
  • With consistent decreases in performance across the 12 carriers rated, the decline in AQR score for the industry is a negative sign for consumers.
  • The return of the AQR score to a level seen five years ago does not send a positive message to consumers that see an industry enjoying positive economic times.

While the study has the look and feel of rigorous quantitative analysis, and the authors go to considerable lengths to tout its supposed objectivity, there’s a fundamentally subjective set of choices at its core. The various factors are weighted according to the opinions of a panel of “airline experts,” whose perceptions may or may not accord with those of the traveling public. For example, the study overweights on-time performance and underweights customer complaints.

In the end, after perusing the numbers and percentages and rankings and graphs, many travelers will find themselves wondering what it all means to them. It’s a good question. The DOT data on which the study is based are limited to what the Department can readily capture and quantify. And the survey’s weighting system adds at least as much uncertainty to the endeavor as it adds to its relevance.

This is a case where anecdotal water cooler rants and raves may be more informative—and certainly more interesting—than a report that purports to be scientifically sound.

Reader Reality Check

How do these quality ratings compare with your own experience of the ranked airlines?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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