The Best and Worst U.S. Airlines in May

by Susan J. Aluise | July 18, 2012 8:40 am

U.S. airlines are trying harder to make sure their flights are on time and planes don’t sit on the tarmac for hours, recently released transportation statistics show. But those good intentions are making very little difference to their passengers, who are feeling a lot less love for their carriers these days.

Those are the big takeaways from the Department of Transportation’s most recent monthly Air Travel Consumer Report. In May, the nation’s airlines posted average on-time performance of 83.4% — that’s a big improvement from the dismal 77.1% one year earlier, but a slip from the 86.3% rate posted in April 2012.

That’s pretty good performance, comparatively speaking. But complaints jumped anyway, rising 18% from a year earlier to 1,260 in May, also up from 1,068 in April 2012. Reports of lost or damaged bags were better than last year at 2.77 per 1,000 passengers, though worse than April’s 2.63 per 1,000 passengers.

But not all airlines are alike when it comes to performance. Here are May 2012’s Best and Worst Airlines as measured by performance in three areas: on-time flights, mishandled baggage and complaints:

Best On-Time Arrival Performance

1. Hawaiian Airlines (NASDAQ:HA[1]) — 94.7%

Hawaiian Airlines is no stranger to the top spot: It has held the No. 1 ranking in on-time performance for each of the past eight years, according to DOT. Of course, you can argue that it’s easier to be on time when the weather is balmy and many short flights are in the mix. That idea might be tested as HA increases flights to Seoul and introduces flights to New Zealand next year.

Runners Up:
2. Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK[2]) – 91.5%
3. AirTran Airways, a unit of Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV[3]) — 88%

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL[4]) — 86.4%
US Airways (NYSE:LCC[5]) — 85.5%

Worst On-Time Arrival Performance

United Continental UAL1. United Continental Airlines (NYSE:UAL[6]) — 77.8%

United Continental’s struggles are consistent with the kinds of challenges carriers face integrating separate fleets, reservation systems and the like. Expect UAL to experience “growing pains” that affect performance metrics across the board for the near term. Another note: Performance data for United Airlines and Continental Airlines were reported separately until this January, so comparisons to last year’s numbers aren’t valid.

UAL also had the dubious distinction of having the only two flights that were delayed on the tarmac for more than three hours. One diverted domestic flight from Seattle to Washington, D.C.’s Dulles was held on the tarmac 188 minutes, and an international flight from Chicago’s O’Hare to Japan’s Narita had a tarmac delay of 284 minutes.

Runners Up:
2. ExpressJet Airlines, regional subsidiary of SkyWest (NASDAQ:SKYW[7]) — 78.8%
3. American Airlines (PINK:AAMRQ[8]) — 80.3%

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU[9]) — 83%
Southwest  — 84.2%

Fewest Mishandled Bags

1. Virgin America — 0.76 reports per 1,000 passengers

Virgin made its debut as a major airline in the Air Travel Consumer Report in March and has been an impressive contender out of the gate. Its 0.76 rate blows away the industry average of 2.77 reports per 1,000 passengers.

Runners Up:
2. AirTran — 1.49 reports per 1,000 passengers
3. JetBlue — 1.67 reports per 1,000 passengers

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
Frontier Airlines, subsidiary of Republic Airways (NASDAQ:RJET[10]) — 1.85 reports per 1,000 passengers
Delta Air Lines — 1.93 reports per 1,000 passengers

Most Mishandled Bags

1. ExpressJet — 5.13 reports per 1,000 passengers

This SkyWest subsidiary’s mishandled bag rate actually improved from last year’s 5.47, but not nearly as much as last year’s top offender, American Eagle, which cut its mishandled bag rate from 8.67 reports per 1,000 passengers to 4.47. Regional carriers tend to have greater challenges managing baggage than their larger peers do because they operate as feeder services for multiple carriers.

Runners Up:
2. Mesa Airlines — 4.95 reports per 1,000 passengers
3. SkyWest — 4.52 reports per 1,000 passengers

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
United Continental — 3.5 reports per 1,000 passengers
Southwest — 2.74 reports per 1,000 passengers
Hawaiian Airlines — 2.63 reports per 1,000 passengers

Fewest Customer Complaints

T1. Virgin America, Frontier Airlines, Mesa Airlines — 5

It’s not as much of a surprise that Virgin America has fewer complaints than many of its peers. After all, the privately held carrier has been working hard to win U.S. customers — it also took top honors for the fifth consecutive year as “Best Domestic Airline” in the Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards readers’ survey. Seeing two regional airlines tied for first is interesting, particularly since customer-focused Southwest now had the same number of complaints in May as did Hawaiian, Alaska and JetBlue combined.

Runners Up:
T2. AirTran; Colgan Air, subsidiary of Pinnacle Airlines (PINK:PNCLQ[11]); PSA Airlines, subsidiary of US Airways (NYSE:LCC[5]) — 6

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
Hawaiian Airlines — 7
Alaska Airlines — 12
JetBlue — 15
Southwest — 34

Most Customer Complaints

United Continental UAL1. United Continental — 291

UAL, which began reporting as a consolidated entity in January, reported the highest number of complaints in May 2012 with a whopping 291. The lion’s share of those complaints related to customer service: including reservations and refunds, as well as mishandled baggage. One explanation: United Continental still is struggling to integrate its operations, and that has caused multiple reservations snafus in recent months.

Runners Up:
U.S. Airways — 109
American — 102

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
Delta Air Lines — 91
Spirit Airlines — 79

As of this writing, Susan J. Aluise did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

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  7. SKYW:
  8. AAMRQ:
  9. JBLU:
  10. RJET:
  11. PNCLQ:

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