New Airline Survey Gives Virgin America Top Rating

It's the carrier's second consecutive year at the top of the annual Air Quality Rating report, with JetBlue coming in second.

U.S. airlines got their highest ratings in more than 20 years in 2013, according to an annual survey, but customers were still not satisfied with the frequency of flight delays and lost or damaged bags.

Of 15 carriers rated by the Air Quality Rating (AQR) survey conducted by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Wichita State University, Burlingame, Calif.-based Virgin America and Long Island City, New York-based JetBlue scored No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, for the second consecutive year.

Of the carriers, eight airlines improved, six declined and one is new to the rankings.

The overall score is decided by a complex, weighted formula taking into account four areas: on-time, denied boardings, mishandled baggage and overall customer complaints.

Here's the whole list, with the ranking for 2012 in parentheses

1. Virgin America (1)

2. JetBlue (2)

3. Hawaiian (5)

4. Delta (4)

5. Alaska (6)

6. Endeavor (new to the rankings this year; formerly Pinnacle)

7. US Airways (9)

8. Southwest (8)

9. American (10)

10. AirTran (3)

11. Frontier (7)

12. United (14)

13. ExpressJet (13)

14. SkyWest (12)

15. American Eagle (11)

And, here are some of the highlights:

-- On-time arrival: Hawaiian got the highest rating of the 15 airlines, American Eagle trailed behind the pack.

-- Involuntarily denied boardings, or "getting bumped" from a flight: Virgin America had the (least bumps, Express Jet the most.

-- Mishandled bags: Virgin had the least mishandled bags (0.97 per 1,000 passengers) compared to 5.9 per 1,000 passengers for the lowest scorer, American Eagle.

-- Overall complaints: Southwest had the fewest (0.34 per 100,000 passengers) compared to the lowest ranking Frontier, with 3.09 per 100,000 passengers).

Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University.

"When you look at the past 14 years, you find that the airline industry performs most efficiently when the system isn't stressed by high passenger volume and high number of airplanes in the air," Headley is quoted as saying by AviationPros.com. "With continued capacity limits and consolidation, one would hope that a less congested system would perform better.

"The challenge is whether airline performance quality improvements at this level can be maintained as more people choose to fly. Or does the infrastructure and air traffic control technology limit what the airlines can actually do?" Headley says.

Bren Bowen, a co-author of the report, says Delta Airlines, which held steady, is particularly noteworthy. The carrier merged with Northwest in 2008 and, according to USAToday, Bowen notes that when mergers happen, "new mega-sized airline's performance declines."

But not in Delta's case.

"It's scientifically proven whenever you combine two large airlines, especially two average performing airlines you get one worse performing airline," Bowen, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Prescott, Arizona campus, tells the newspaper. But now "a former merged legacy carrier has bucked that trend . . . I think what this is saying is if management wants to make it happen, and wants to turn it around and knows the right formula, they can do it."

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