WASHINGTON -- Fewer passengers boarded planes last year, but those who did were generally treated better than in the past.
Planes were more likely to land on time and bags less likely to get lost in 2009, according to an annual analysis of airline quality by private researchers.
As a result, passengers reported fewer complaints even while cash-strapped airlines reduced flight schedules and charged for everything from bags and pillows to prime spots in boarding lines.
Airline performance has improved over the past two years. U.S. air travel surged to 770 million passengers in 2007, when airline performance suffered a near meltdown. Last year, with nearly 70 million fewer passengers boarding planes, airlines did a much better job as measured by such basics as on-time performance, mishandled bags, bumpings due to overbooking and consumer complaints.
"We kind of turned a little bit of a corner in '08 and we're glad to say they're continuing that generally positive (trend) for the consumer," said Dean Headley, a Wichita State University professor and co-author of an annual analysis of airline quality. "Every airline that we looked at in '08 and '09 got better."
One cloud in the otherwise friendly skies was a slight increase in denied boardings, mostly due to overbooking.
The report's findings are based on government statistics. An overall ranking of the 18 airlines was to be released Monday.
The top rated airline in 2008 was Hawaiian, which flies to ten U.S. mainland cities along with the Hawaiian Islands and to the Philippines, Australia, Samoa and Tahiti. At the bottom was Atlantic Southeast, which operates Delta Connection regional flights.
For 2009, American Eagle, which operates regional flights for American Airlines, had the highest rate of involuntary denied boardings at 3.76 per 100,000 passengers. Low-cost carrier JetBlue had so few denied boardings that its rate showed up as zero.
Passengers didn't check as many bags last year, perhaps in part due to those annoying baggage fees. Fewer than 4 bags per every 1,000 travelers were lost or damaged. The rate for lost bags last year was second best in the last 20 years and about half what it was in 2007.
Low-cost carrier AirTran fared best last year, with a mishandled bag rate of 1.67. The worst: Atlantic Southeast, at 7.87. Most of that airline's flights start, end or stop at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, the world's busiest airport.
The recession hit airlines hard, and they have scrambled for ways to generate income other than by raising fares. U.S. airlines collectively lost $8 billion in 2009, although regional carriers as a group were profitable, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
More than 79 percent of airline flights arrived on time in 2009, 3.4 percent better than a year earlier. Fourteen of the 18 airlines included in the analysis improved their on-time performance from the year before. At the bottom was regional carrier Comair, with only 69 percent of flights on time. The airline, like Atlantic Southeast, operates Delta Connection regional flights. Only slightly better was Atlantic Southeast, 71.2 percent.
Fewer than one in every 100,000 passengers filed complaints with the Department of Transportation, down slightly from the previous year. Southwest again had the lowest complaint rate -- 0.21 complaints per 100,000 passengers. Delta, whose regional partners had the worst baggage and on-time performance, had the highest complaint rate, 1.96.
The ratings, compiled annually since 1991, are based on department statistics for airlines that carry at least 1 percent of the passengers who flew domestically last year. The research is sponsored by Purdue University in Indiana, and by Wichita State University in Kansas.