Department of Transportation rankings show major airlines' strengths, weaknesses

Friday, February 18, 2011 | 12:07 p.m. CST; updated 5:09 p.m. CST, Sunday, February 20, 2011

NEW YORK — Flying is rarely seamless. Hoping to hit the Pick Four of a low fare, uninterrupted trip, great service and unscathed luggage is wishful thinking.

An examination of the government's performance rankings and catalog of passenger complaints may help travelers determine how close their airline might come.

First, the good news. Four of the so-called network carriers — United, Continental, American and US Airways — got more passengers to their destinations on time last year than in 2009. Delta slipped slightly after two years of improvement. All of them lowered their rate of lost or damaged bags.

Meanwhile, the airline that carries more passengers than any other, Southwest, has dropped to 10th from second in on-time performance. Its rate of damaged or lost bags held steady last year from 2009.

Yet Southwest still gets a near-pass when it comes to passenger complaints.

Flight problems — cancellations, delays and missed connections — are the biggest reason travelers complain to the Department of Transportation; baggage is the second.

Getting bags checked for free — the other airlines charge up to $60 for two bags — seems to give travelers more patience with Southwest. That, and a reputation for lower fares, helps ease travelers' gripes about late arrivals or other issues that they might complain about at other airlines.

And do they ever complain.

More passengers filed complaints last year than ever before. That's partly because the transportation department has improved its online complaint system. But passengers have plenty of reasons to wage a formal government complaint. The rise of fees, fewer customer service agents and extensive security have led many travelers to seek a higher authority when things go wrong.

Three airlines generally draw the most complaints: Delta, United and US Airways. Delta, which got the most, was the world's biggest airline until United combined with Continental in October.

Most of the 2,200 complaints against Delta last year were about customer service. But Delta's poor on-performance — it ranked 15th out of the 18 biggest airlines — probably added to the frustration.

Delta had 10 times the complaints of Southwest, even though it had a third fewer U.S. passengers. Only 211 of 101.4 million Southwest customers complained to the transportation department last year.

Southwest's on-time rate has dropped since starting service at New York's LaGuardia, Boston's Logan and other big city airports. It still ranks first overall in the transportation department's records dating back to 1987.

Aviation consultant Mark Kiefer suggests Southwest fliers complain less because they're more likely leisure travelers, who fly infrequently and suffer less from a delay than business travelers.

Kiefer suggests that passengers, who often say low fares are the most important factor in choosing a flight, pay more attention to an airline's on-time rates, lost or damaged bags and complaints.

"The consequences of a delay are much greater now that flights are so full," Kiefer said.

Flights now are regularly at least 80 percent booked — a rate more common during the peak of summer travel.

"A delay or lost bag can be a pretty big inconvenience when it means missing a day or your vacation."

Of course, that's better than being kicked off a flight altogether. Major airlines regularly oversell their flights in case some people don't show up. American, US Airways and Continental bumped more passengers last year than the year before; Delta, United and Southwest denied boarding to fewer travelers.

So, for those travelers on the six biggest airlines who believe time is money, United or US Airways are the best bet. US Airways or Continental make sense for anyone concerned about the well-being of their luggage. Those who fear being bumped should pick Delta. But if what they hate most is paying to check a bag, Southwest remains the top choice.

As for some smaller airlines:

  • JetBlue gets about the same number of complaints as its bigger discount rival Southwest, but with a quarter of the traffic. Its thick Northeastern route system is more prone to delays. And JetBlue is based in New York, where complaining is a time-honored tradition.
  • Hawaiian Airlines has operated the most on-time flight for the last four years — that pristine island weather doesn't hurt.
  • Regional carriers are usually among the worst at getting passengers to their destinations on time. Only Mesa, which handles flights for several major airlines, broke into the top 10. The regionals generally make shorter trips, so they make more turnarounds in a day than bigger planes. That leaves them more prone to delays. Comair, which operates regional flights for Delta, was late most often.
  • AirTran has had the fewest number of lost or damaged bags among big airlines for the last three years.
  • American Eagle bumped 6,335 passengers last year. By comparison, JetBlue, which doesn't oversell its flights, denied boarding to just 22. AirTran and Delta were next in line, but those airlines voluntarily deny boarding — and dole out vouchers — to thousands more passengers.

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