Despite some scary events and bad PR in the past year, U.S. airlines improved in overall quality last year, according to the annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR) report, released in May.
The 2018 AQR report by researchers at Wichita State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is a statistical study of major airline performance, objectively comparing airline quality.
The study indicates that as a whole, the 12 largest U.S. airlines improved their performance last year in three of the four categories tracked, making 2017 the best year for overall airline quality in the 28 years of the report. That said, the report’s authors caution the results do not necessarily mean commercial airline travel has dramatically improved in significant ways.
“The industry is improving, but there are still a lot of frustrated travelers out there,” says Brent Bowen, dean of aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and one of the report’s lead authors.
According to the Airline Quality Rating (AQR) website, the report is the most comprehensive study of performance and quality of the largest airlines in the United States. The rating is a multifactor examination of the airlines based on mishandled baggage, consumer complaints, on-time performance and involuntary denied boardings.
Overall airline industry findings
- The 2017 score is the best AQR score in the 27-year history of the rating.
- The industry AQR score has improved each year for the past three years (2015, 2016, and 2017).
- Taking all 12 rated airlines together, the AQR score for the industry improved from a level of -0.95 in 2016 to -0.79 in 2017.
- Improved performance was seen in three of the four areas tracked.
Specific areas of improvement
- The industry mishandled baggage rate was better, decreasing from 2.70 per 1,000 passengers in 2016 to 2.46 per 1,000 passengers in 2017.
- Involuntary denied boardings by the industry improved to 0.34 per 10,000 passengers in 2017 from 0.62 per 10,000 passengers in 2016.
- The consumer complaint rate across the industry declined to 1.35 per 100,000 passengers in 2017 from 1.52 per 100,000 passengers in 2016.
- The 10% decrease in the rate of consumer complaints in 2017 suggests that improved performance in important areas to consumers has been noticed.
- Of the 11,570 complaints registered with the DOT regarding all U.S. domestic carriers, 74% were for flight problems, baggage problems, reservation, ticketing and boarding issues, or customer service problems.
Specific airline results
- Nine airlines showed improvement in AQR scores in 2017: American, ExpressJet, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, SkyWest, Southwest, Spirit and United.
- Frontier had the largest improvement in their AQR score in 2017.
- Three airlines—Alaska, Delta and Virgin America—all declined in their 2017 AQR score from the previous year. Virgin America had the largest decline in AQR score for 2017.
Areas for improvement
As an industry, the AQR criteria show that on-time arrival percentage was down (80.2% in 2017 compared to 81.4% in 2016).
Other areas where airlines could improve, according to author Bowen and other researchers, include a lack of transparency in airfares, annoyances like cramped seats and extra fees for almost everything, as examples of elements of airline travel that are wearing on travelers despite the performance improvements.