Delta Air Lines' first Airbus A220. (Delta).
Delta Air Lines was crowned the highest-quality airline in America in the 29th annual Airline Quality Report (AQR), a joint initiative from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical and Wichita State Universities.
The AQR evaluates operators on metrics including on-time performance, denied boardings, mishandled baggage and consumer complaints. Throughout its life, the AQR has judged up to 18 operators per year in each weighted category in an attempt to measure quality. Industry consolidation has pared down the number of commercial airlines over the years, and Allegiant Air is the only one of 10 Group III (revenue greater than $1 billion) carriers not represented in the rankings.
Delta's top spot is its first since 2000, though it placed second each of the past two years. Its on-time arrival percentage of 85.7 was slightly better than the year prior and is significantly above the industry average of 79.6 percent. A mishandled bag rate of 1.8 per 1,000 passengers represented a slight decline and the operator cut complaints from 0.92 to 0.65 per 100,000 passengers, according to the AQR report. Perhaps most notably, the report shows 0.00 passengers per 10,000 denied boarding.
First place in both 2017 and 2018 was Alaska Airlines, which fell to fourth this year. In the four years prior to that, the top spot belonged to Virgin Airlines, which Alaska acquired prior to 2018, so the merger does not seem to have done the new group any short-term favors. While Alaska still placed fourth in 2018, the AQR report shows that the airline had a worse on-time rate and more than a two-thirds increase in mishandled bags, rising to 2.67 for every 1,000 passengers.
Second place this year belonged to JetBlue Airways. The carrier had a relatively poor on-time performance with 71 percent of flights meeting their goal, but it showed drastic improvement in the denied boarding metric, going from 0.41 per 10,000 passengers in 2017 to 0.01 in 2018.
Third-place Southwest Airlines had only 0.36 complaints per 100,000 passengers and 0.15 denied boardings per 10,000, both improvements over its 2018 figures. It mishandled 2.89 bags for every 1,000 passengers, though, and its on-time performance is about industry average.
Other notable results include a marked performance for Spirit Airlines, which had finished in last place in two out of three previous appearances, and second-to-last in the other. It jumped to seventh of nine in 2018, with improvements in every category except mishandled bags, which saw a small fall. Customer complaints fell to 2.83 per 100,000 in 2018 from a whopping 5.59 in 2017.
The airline Spirit leap-frogged for the bottom spot is Frontier, another budget carrier who has also lived at the bottom of the list the past couple years, though it has some appearances as high as the top 5 in the mid-aughts. In 2018, it mirrored Spirit in every respect, performing worse than in 2017 in all categories save a small improvement in bag-handling. On-time arrival percentage fell from 78.3 to 69.4; its average customer complaints per 100,000 jumped from 2.78 to 4.02; Frontier suffered the largest aggregate score decrease of any surveyed airline.
Overall, the AQR report showed an improvement in the industry's quality and the best total scores in the nearly three decades the list has been compiled. On-time arrival percentage — the most heavily-weighted category — fell in 2018, to 79.6 from 80.2 percent, but the other three evaluated metrics all showed year-over-year improvement. Involuntary denied boardings were 0.14 in 2018 and there were 2.43 mishandled bags per thousand.
In 2018, there were 8,865 complaints with the Department of Transportation regarding all U.S. domestic carriers, equating to an industry average of 1.35 per 100,000 passengers. According to the Department's monthly air travel report, 72 percent of complaints were for flight problems, baggage problems, reservation, ticketing and boarding issues, or customer service problems. The other potential categories include fares, refunds, baggage, disability, discrimination, animals and advertising.
"Improvement in industry performance in three of the four areas tracked in the ratings is a positive sign for consumers and airlines alike," the AQR report reads. "The 23% decrease in the rate of consumer complaints in 2018 suggests that improved performance in important areas to consumers has been noticed by the flying public."
“This year's results of quality and productivity are being released during a time of industry turbulence,” said Embry-Riddle professor Brent Bowen in a statement.
“Some good news emerging from this most recent AQR is that airlines continue to pay attention to customer concerns and are improving performance in areas that consumers care about,” said Dean Headley, AQR co-founder and professor emeritus at Wichita State.
The full list of the nine surveyed airlines and how they ranked this year is as follows, or you can go to the AQR site for more details on how each operator scored.
- Delta Air Lines
- Southwest Airlines
- Alaska Airlines
- Hawaiin Airlines
- United Airlines
- Spirit Airlines
- American Airlines
- Frontier Airlines