The Best and Worst U.S. Airlines in November

October was a tough month for U.S. airlines, as nearly one in five flights failed to arrive on time. With Superstorm Sandy out of the way, though, most airlines got back on track in November, according to the Department of Transportation’s latest Air Travel Consumer Report.

The 15 airlines tracked by the report posted an on-time performance of 85.7% in November — a hair better than last year and vastly improved from October’s 80.2%. Even better news: United Continental (NYSE:UAL) and American Airlines (PINK:AAMRQ) were able to push past the system glitches and labor slowdowns that impaired their respective performance metrics in the late summer and early fall.

Of course, the impact of Superstorm Sandy is still being felt on the bottom line. Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL), for example, said Sandy slashed $100 million off its Q4 profit.

Here are November 2012’s best and worst airlines as measured by performance in four areas: on-time flights, flight cancellations, mishandled baggage and complaints:

Best On-Time Performance

1. Hawaiian Airlines (NASDAQ:HA) — 94.1%

What more can you say about Hawaiian Airlines’ consistently sunny on-time performance? The airline bested its peers again in November, and remains the odds-on favorite to hold onto the coveted first-place ranking it has owned since 2004.

Runners up:

2. AirTran, a unit of Southwest (NYSE:LUV) — 91.3%. AirTran continues to gain ground in on-time performance — a benefit of being a part of the Southwest family. It’s worth noting, however, that Southwest’s on-time performance has slipped since the merger.

3. Delta Air Lines — 90.6%. Delta deserves credit for making improved on-time performance a priority by beefing up maintenance personnel at airports and timing flights more effectively.

How other major airlines stack up:

U.S. Airways (NYSE:LCC) — 88.1%

Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK) — 87.3%

American Eagle, a unit of American Airlines — 86.6%

Worst On-Time Performance

American Airlines AAMRQ1. American Airlines — 79.6%

American’s on-time performance still lagged other airlines in November, but the situation is looking up. November’s numbers are 20% higher September’s, when a labor dispute with its union pilots reached its zenith.

Runners up:

1. JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) — 81.9%

2. Frontier Airlines — 82.1%

3. SkyWest (NASDAQ:SKYW) — 82.8%

How other major airlines stack up:

United Continental — 85.5%. UAL is moving past some of its challenges integrating United and Continental. As long as the consolidation efforts continue to progress, and weather at its Chicago hub cooperates, I’d expect better metrics from UAL going forward.

Virgin America — 85.9%

Southwest — 86%. Southwest has had some growing pains in recent years as it has expanded from secondary airports into more congested legacy hubs which are more prone to delays. Still, it did a good job of adjusting in 2012 and its performance improvements are likely to continue in 2013.

Fewest Flight Cancellations

1. Hawaiian Airlines — No cancellations in 5,985 scheduled flights

The winning combination of balmy weather and operational efficiency gave HA the edge in this key metric during November.

Runners up:

2. Frontier — 13 cancellations in 6,271 scheduled flights, 0.2%

3. AirTran — 65 cancellations in 16,143 scheduled flights, 0.4%

4. Delta — 266 cancellations in 60, 073 scheduled flights, 0.4%

How other major airlines stack up:

Southwest — 504 cancellations in 90,231 scheduled flights, 0.6%

Virgin America — 29 cancellations in 4,575 scheduled flights, 0.6%

Alaska Airlines — 75 cancellations in 11,767 scheduled flights, 0.6%

Most Flight Cancellations

SkyWest — 1,104 cancellations in 49,528 scheduled flights, 2.2%

SkyWest not only led the category of most flight cancellations, but reported that 498 regularly scheduled flights (7.3% of its total) were cancelled 5% of the time or more.

Runners up:

JetBlue — 306 cancellations in 18,870 scheduled flights, 1.6%

ExpressJet — 961 cancellations in 60,556 scheduled flights, 1.6%

How other major airlines stack up:

United Continental — 604 cancellations in 41,354 scheduled flights, 1.5%

US Airways — 365 cancellations in 32,963 scheduled flight, 1.1%

American Eagle — 348 cancellations in 37,363 scheduled flights, 0.9%

American Airlines — 347 cancellations in 41,960 scheduled flights, 0.8%.

Fewest Mishandled Bags:

1. Virgin America — 0.61 reports per 1,000 passengers.

Virgin America is definitely doing something right when it comes to handling baggage; its lost or mishandled bag rate continues to blow away the industry average of 2.64 bags per 1,000 passengers.

Runners up:

2. AirTran — 1.54 reports per 1,000 passengers

3. Delta Air Lines — 1.74 reports per 1,000 passengers

4. JetBlue — 1.83 reports per 1,000 passengers

How other major airlines stack up:

U.S. Airways — 1.85 reports per 1,000 passengers

Alaska Airlines — 2.51 reports per 1,000 passengers

Hawaiian Airlines — 2.56 reports per 1,000 passengers

Most Mishandled Bags:

American Eagle — 5.31 reports per 1,000 passengers

Feeder carriers usually have higher mishandled bag stats because of delays and challenging connections with legacy carriers. American Eagle’s mishandled bag rate actually improved slightly year-over-year, but it continued to struggle compared with other carriers.

Runners up:

2. SkyWest — 4.59 reports per 1,000 passengers

3. ExpressJet — 4.09 reports per 1,000 passengers

4. Mesa Airlines — 3.65 reports per 1,000 passengers

How other major airlines stack up:

United Continental — 2.88 reports per 1,000 passengers

Southwest — 2.86 reports per 1,000 passengers

American Airlines — 2.66 reports per 1,000 passengers

Fewest Customer Complaints

Southwest LUVSouthwest — 15 total complaints, 0.16% per 100,000 enplanements

Southwest has long been king among airline customers for its customer service, and passengers still love LUV. Keep a close eye on the impact of a number of new fees on customer satisfaction; Southwest has added a $40 early boarding fee for passengers who want a guarantee that they will be among the first group to board the plane. Still, as long as “Bags Fly Free,” LUV should retain its popularity with frequent flyers.

Runners up:

 2. ExpressJet — 7 total complaints, 0.26% per 100,000 enplanements

3. Mesa Airlines — 2 total complaints, 0.32% per 100,000 enplanements

4. Alaska Airlines — 5 total complaints, 0.33% per 100,000 enplanements

How other major airlines stack up:

Delta — 42 total complaints, 0.45% per 100,000 enplanements

AirTran — 8 total complaints, 0.49% per 100,000 enplanements

American Eagle — 12 total complaints, 0.80 per 100,000 enplanements

JetBlue — 21 total complaints, 0.90% per 100,000 enplanements

Most Customer Complaints

1. United Continental — 162 total complaint, 2.33% per 100,000 enplanements

UAL still topped the complaint category in November with 162, but that’s a far cry from the 995 complaints it reported in July when system glitches delayed flights and stranded passengers. I look for these numbers to improve further as UAL works through the rest of its systems integration efforts in combining United and Continental.

Runners up:

2. American Airlines — 146 total complaints, 2.12% per 100,000 enplanements. This is a trend that I would expect to worsen before it improves. American’s customers were more or less understanding about the delays stemming from the labor slowdown in the fall. Holiday travelers tend to be less patient about such snafus.

3. Frontier — 15 total complaints, 2.12% per 100,000 enplanements

How other major airlines stack up:

US Airways — 66 total complaints, 1.47% per 100,000 enplanements

Virgin America — 7 total complaints, 1.43% per 100,000 enplanements

Hawaiian Airlines — 11 total complaints, 1.39% per 100,000 enplanements

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

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