Airlines: The best and worst for 2008

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The airlines turned in their best overall performance in four years in an annual quality ranking survey. The researchers used government data on flight delays, baggage mishandling, and consumer complaints to crunch their numbers. (You can read the full report as a PDF.)

Hawaiian Airlines topped the list for the most on-time arrivals. American Airlines was at the bottom. In American's defense, it flies to a lot more destinations and through a lot more poor weather conditions than Hawaiian does. On the other hand, American's rating was hard hit by the FAA order last year that it ground hundreds of planes for additional mechanical inspection.

AirTran did the best job of delivering bags to their destination, while American Eagle mishandled the most bags of the 17 airlines surveyed. As consumer advocates, we'd like to point out that both airlines have added fees for checking bags in the past year. Both Airtran and American Eagle charge $15 for the first checked bag and $25 for the second. Imagine if you paid a fee and your bag STILL got lost. You would be furious, right? Even worse, the airlines don't automatically refund the fee to you in cases where you bags are mishandled. But you deserve that fee to be refunded. Be sure to demand your money back, if your bag is unfortunately lost.

JetBlue Airways bumped the fewest number of passengers off of flights for the second year in a row. In contrast, Atlantic Southeast Airlines had the most overbooked planes. It bumped one out of every 3,000 of its customers(!)

Overall, the airlines did a much better job of not overbooking their planes, and that's not just because the recession reduced the number of passengers flying late last year. In April 2008, the government doubled the amount of money that passengers can demand if they get involuntarily bumped from a plane. It's now up to $800 if you aren't re-booked onto another flight out after four hours on most long-haul flights. And airlines don't want to reimburse customers that much cash, so they've been much more cautious about booking their planes than in the past.

Southwest Airlines had the fewest gripes from travelers last year, according to the government, while US Airways had the most upset passengers. Some people may be surprised that a low cost carrier could deliver the highest quality service. US Airways can partly blame its high customer-dissatisfaction rate on its struggle to integrate its crew and equipment with America West's crew and equipment. It also made an unsuccessful bid to charge for sodas last year that lost it a lot of customer goodwill. We ought to point out that US Airways made dramatic improvements in its baggage delivery and on-time flight performances, especially at its Philadelphia hub. The future looks up for the airline's rankings.

Overall, this survey is good news for United Airlines, which used to have the most complaints but has improved a lot in the past year and performed better than US Airways. Delta's ranking, on the other hand, barely budged.


Compare today's results from six months ago.

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