It’s not your imagination: Airline performance fell in 2014, report says

WASHINGTON – Two of the biggest airlines serving Arizona saw a decline in their service last year – but they were not alone.

The annual Airline Quality Ratings report released Monday said that, with few exceptions, major airlines’ performance dropped in all four categories the study measures: on-time performance, baggage handling, denied boarding and passenger complaints.

“All four things got worse. We’re going in the wrong direction and consumers are actually telling us we’re going in the wrong direction,” said Dean Headley, a professor of marketing at Wichita State University’s business school and one of the authors of the report.

“It is somewhat disturbing to note that we have times when the airlines are performing poorly and we seem to be tipping over into another one of those times,” Headley said.

The report, now in its 25th year, uses a formula that combines four performance categories into a single score for the 12 airlines studied. The average score for the industry under that formula went from -1.07 in 2013 to -1.24 last year.

By category, the report said on-time arrivals fell from 78.4 percent in 2013 to 76.2 percent in 2014, while the rate of passengers denied boarding rose from 0.89 denials per 10,000 passengers to 0.92 per 10,000 over the same period. Mishandled baggage went up from 3.21 incidents per 1,000 passengers in 2013 to 3.62 in 2014.

The report also said that there were 11,364 customer complaints filed with the Department of Transportation in 2014, a rate of 1.38 complaints per 100,000 fliers compared to a rate of 1.13 the year before.

While the industry overall did worse, some airlines bucked the trend. Frontier and Jet Blue saw improvements in their on-time arrivals, while Delta and Hawaiian Airlines improved the rate for passengers denied boarding.

But the gains were incremental, Headley said.

“The improvements are small by those that did improve. The declines are much larger,” he said at a news conference to release the report.

Southwest and American, the two biggest carriers serving Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, fell in the middle of the report’s performance rankings for 2014, with Southwest’s overall score falling from -1.06 to -1.22 and American’s going from -1.10 to -1.35.

Brent Bowen, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said the two airlines are “doing OK,” but also warned American Airlines could have “a couple of rough years” as it works through its merger with US Airways.

“Whenever you put two of these large airlines together the quality of performance goes down, our data shows that,” said Bowen, the other author of the report. “It’s definitely expected that American’s performance will go down for a few years.”

After years of talks, the two airlines began merging operations last year. But technicalities of putting together two separate airlines create challenges, said Bowen, noting that a merger requires a consolidation of different plane models, computer systems, pilots and flight attendants who need to be correctly matched to planes.

Southwest, which began a merger with AirTran in 2011, only completed the process just before the end of last year.

“While we experienced operational challenges in 2014, we’re seeing improvements as a result of the investments and enhancements that we made to our operations beginning in the middle of last year,” a Southwest spokesman said in an email Monday.

Headley said that although mergers can be difficult, airlines like Delta have successfully completed them and have risen in the rankings as a result.

“A merger doesn’t mean you’re going to get worse. You will at first, merging has issues, but you can get better and Delta has shown that,” Headley said.

American Airlines said in an emailed response to the ratings that on-time arrivals are and will continue to be its main concern when it comes to customer service.

“Customers want an on-time experience, and departing on time is the best way of ensuring an on-time arrival,” the airline said through a spokesman. “This is why we are concentrating on timely departures, to continue improving the customer experience.”

Bowen thinks the best way for airlines to improve their ratings would be to reallocate some resources.

“The airlines are doing so well financially,” he said. “They should be reinvesting in customer service. They should be reinvesting in their employees that gave concessions. That would boost morale and that would boost service.”