WASHINGTON – The friendly skies just got a little friendlier – at least for those who fly on some of the low-fare carriers soaring to the top of an airline quality study released Monday.
Researchers weighed on-time arrival,overbooked flights,mishandled baggage and consumer complaints for 2003 to find “three of the top four performing airlines are low-fare carriers.”
“We can,at this point,know that the low-fare phenomena is working well,” said Dean E. Headley,one of the study's authors and a marketing professor and department chair at Wichita State University's business school.
The 14th annual Airline Quality Ranking reviews all 14 airlines required to report information to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Each company serves at least 1 percent of the total U.S. market,said Brent D. Bowen,who is the study's coauthor and director of the Aviation Institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Bowen said he observed a “new high level in terms of quality at this point in time.”
Jet Blue,Alaska,Southwest and America West top the list. All but Alaska are low-fare airlines.
The others,in their order in the rankings,are US Airways,Northwest,Continental,AirTran,United, ATA,American,Delta,American Eagle and Atlantic Southeast.
Airlines debuting on the list included Jet Blue,AirTran,ATA and Atlantic Southeast.
Moving to No. 6 from its No. 9 spot in 2002,Northwest was the “most improved,” according to the report. US Airways dropped from No. 1 to No. 5,and American fell from No. 6 to No. 11.
Although “overall airline quality improved for the third consecutive year,” the number of mishandled or lost bags rose from 3.8 per 1,000 passengers in 2002 to four per 1,000 passengers in 2003,the report found. American Eagle had a mishandled baggage rate nearly twice the industry rate,the worst of the airlines studied.
Most lost bags are returned “within 48 hours” and “only a very few” are never returned,the report said.
Still,as consumer confidence rebuilds after the Sept. 11,2001,terrorist attacks,travelers are “more forgiving right now,” Bowen said.
They expect longer lines and extra security,he said,which may explain why there were only half as many airline-related complaints reported to DOT in 2003 than 2002. That had a significant effect on overall ratings,making up for a 19 percent increase in the number of passengers denied seats on overbooked planes and a slight increase in the number of late flights.
But such statistics would unlikely affect the airline of choice for at least one traveler.
Having taken a United flight from Chicago to New York,Lisa Graham of San Francisco, gripped her suitcase's handle as she traveled on Washington's Metrorail system to another meeting on behalf of her employer,the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education,based in Half Moon Bay,Calif.
“Frankly,I know this sounds awful,but all I care about is how the engines are maintained,” Graham said.
Graham said she had to reschedule her Monday evening return flight to leave from Washington instead of New York because of a last-minute meeting in Washington.
She said she enjoys “good treatment and lots of frequent flier miles” from United,but because she changed her flight the day before it left,she opted for a $166 Jet Blue ticket to Oakland instead of a $500 United ticket to San Francisco.
She said she values the flexibility offered by low-fare carriers such as Jet Blue.
“It's an hour to my house instead of a half-hour,but for the $350 price difference it's worth it.”