The Best and Worst Airlines in June

Most U.S. airlines did a better job in key performance metrics like on-time arrivals and lost or mishandled baggage in the first half of the year, according to the Department of Transportation’s most recent Air Travel Consumer Report. Unfortunately for the airlines, June’s monthly statistics — particularly consumer complaints — are moving in the wrong direction.

The good news: For the first half of 2012, the nation’s airlines posted their best average on-time and baggage-handling performance since DOT started keeping score 18 years ago. Between January and June, 83.7% of all flights arrived within 15 minutes of schedule. The airlines also lost or mishandled fewer than three bags for every 1,000 passengers during the first half of the year.

The bad news: DOT’s monthly report on the 15 largest U.S. airlines found, on average, only 80.7% of all flights arrived on time in June — that’s 2.7% worse than May’s performance. The airlines also averaged 3.35 lost or mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers, compared to a rate of 2.8 per 1,000 passengers in May. The number of complaints also rose in June to 1,353 from May’s 1,260 — and even last’s month’s numbers were nearly double the number of complaints the agency received in June 2011.

Stats like these make it easy to see why consumers hate airlines. Four airlines made the American Consumer Satisfaction Index’s most recent “15 Most Disliked Companies in America” list. United Continental (NYSE:UAL) ranked fifth on a list dominated by outage-prone utilities and pay-TV companies; American Airlines (PINK:AAMRQ), US Airways (NYSE:LCC) and Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) took spots seven through 10, respectively.

Although average performance can highlight the broad direction the airline sector is moving, it reveals little about how well individual airlines are meeting — or missing — expectations. Here are June 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) — 93.9%

Hawaiian Airlines continued to own the top spot in on-time performance in June, although it did slip slightly from May’s 94.7%. The airline easily has been able to hold onto its top on-time ranking since 2004. HA provides some 170 daily flights among the Hawaiian Islands, as well as service to Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, American Samoa and Tahiti. The airline is adding new nonstop flights from Honolulu to Japan and Australia this fall, and to New Zealand next March.

Runners Up:
2. Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK) — 88.4%
3. Mesa Airlines — 87%. Regional carrier Mesa, which operates code-shares as US Airways Express and United Express, nabbed the No. 3 slot held in May by AirTran Airways, a unit of Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV). AirTran’s on-time performance fell from 87% in May to 85.9% in June.

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
US Airways — 86.2%
Delta Air Lines — 85.5%

Worst On-Time Arrival Performance

United Continental UAL1. United Continental Airlines — 70.1%

United Continental’s on-time performance plummeted to a new low of 70.1% in June — down from 77.8% in May. The largest U.S. carrier continues to be bedeviled by the process of integrating the former Continental and has experienced monumental glitches with reservation systems. Even relatively small airline mergers are notorious for their near-term challenges; joining two of the largest airlines adds in even greater complexity. Two important notes:

  1. UAL will work its way through the near-term hit on its performance metrics
  2. Expect similar challenges to crop up for other merged (or potentially merging) carriers.

You can see the early signs of this impact in the latest Southwest-AirTran numbers below (in May, Southwest’s on-time performance was 4.4% higher than it was in June).

Runners Up:
2. Frontier Airlines, subsidiary of Republic Airways Holdings (NASDAQ:RJET) — 74.3%
3. ExpressJet Airlines, regional subsidiary of SkyWest (NASDAQ:SKYW) — 76.3%

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) — 77.4%
Southwest — 79.8%
American Airlines — 79.8%

Fewest Mishandled Bags

1. Virgin America — 0.85 reports per 1,000 passengers

In its four months as a part of the consumer survey, Virgin America continues to impress. Its 0.85 rate blows away the industry average of 3.35 reports per 1,000 passengers. The airline will have a new market in which to test its mettle with the introduction of nonstop service from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National, which began last week.

Runners Up:
2. AirTran — 1.64 reports per 1,000 passengers
3. JetBlue — 2.08 reports per 1,000 passengers

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
US Airways — 2.23 reports per 1,000 passengers. LCC zipped ahead of DAL and Frontier in June.
Delta Air Lines — 2.36 reports per 1,000 passengers

Most Mishandled Bags

1. ExpressJet — 6.20 reports per 1,000 passengers

This SkyWest subsidiary’s mishandled bag rate worsened dramatically from the 5.13 per 1,000 passengers reported in May. So-called “feeder carriers” like ExpressJet tend to have greater challenges managing baggage than do their larger peers. American Eagle, American’s feeder airline, ended up back in the bottom three carriers in June, despite a marked improvement in May.

Runners Up:
2. SkyWest — 5.78 reports per 1,000 passengers
3. American Eagle — 5.36 reports per 1,000 passengers

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
United Continental — 4.9 reports per 1,000 passengers
Southwest — 3.2 reports per 1,000 passengers
American Airlines — 2.83 reports per 1,000 passengers

Fewest Customer Complaints

T1. Hawaiian Airlines, Delta Air Lines subsidiary Comair, and Silver Airlines (United Airlines feeder carrier) — 5

Hawaiian Airlines is well thought of, compares favorably in travel reviews and boasts the top on-time performance ranking, which gives consumers fewer things to complain about. All those paradise destinations probably lift travelers’ moods more than, say, mid-week shuttles to Cleveland. For the second month in a row, two regional airlines tied for first place in fewest number of complaints, but they were two different feeder carriers: Delta’s wholly owned Comair and Silver Airlines, a UAL and LCC code-share partner.

Runners Up:
T2. Republic Airways subsidiary Chautauqua Airlines; the Colgan Air subsidiary of Pinnacle Airlines (PINK:PNCLQ) and Trans States Airlines (which operates as United Express and US Airways Express) — 6

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
Virgin America — 9
JetBlue — 23
Southwest — 39

Most Customer Complaints

United Continental UAL1. United Continental — 585

Yes, UAL’s total — more than 40% of the total for all 15 airlines — is correct. UAL’s June complaints were double the number that the carrier reported in May, so it’s pretty safe to say that a lot of travelers are not finding United’s skies particularly friendly these days. Unlike May’s largely customer service-focused complaints, flight problems were to blame for the lion’s share of UAL’s June complaints. Blame a five-hour computer outage on June 15 that caused widespread flight cancellations. United Continental still is struggling to integrate its operations, and that has caused multiple reservations snafus in recent months.

Runners Up:
US Airways — 117
American — 105

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
Spirit Airlines — 93
Delta Air Lines — 82

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

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