THOSE who are convinced that airlines in America are engaged in a precipitous race to the bottom have just received a further piece of evidence for their case. The annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR), jointly produced by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Wichita State University, was released yesterday. It found that airline performance in the country got worse last year. The study tracks four areas: customer complaints, baggage handling, punctuality and “involuntary denied boarding”—the number of passengers airlines bump from flights.
In 2014, based on these metrics, only three American airlines out of the 12 studied—Hawaiian, Alaska and Virgin America—improved their performance. Envoy, meanwhile, showed the biggest fall in the level of service. After three consecutive years of steady improvement in the industry, the decline means that overall performance levels are now back to where they were in 2009.
In some areas, the airlines can perhaps be cut some slack. The number of flights that touched down on time fell to 76.2% in 2014 compared with 78.4% the year before, but the winter was a terrible and disruptive one. Other declines over the same period are less forgivable. “Mishandled baggage” rose from 3.21 per 1,000 passengers to 3.62; consumer complaints rose to 1.38 per 100,000 passengers from 1.13; and airlines bumped 0.92 out of every 10,000 passengers, compared with 0.89 the year before.
What is most depressing about the findings is that the decline in service has coincided with airlines finally realising some healthy profits. Passengers, it seems, are not sharing in the spoils. Perhaps it is no coincidence that there is also less competition following hefty consolidation over the past few years, when the number of big airlines fell from seven to four. The legacy carriers that are left are currently squealing about the state subsidies they say are being lavished on the Middle Eastern super-connectors. But when Akbar Al Baker, boss of Qatar Airways, said that the reason Delta was resisting competition was because it flies “crap aeroplanes that are 35 years old”, he had a point. As things stand, American carriers have little chance of competing on quality with the best of the rest of the world. (And Delta, according to this study, is actually one of the better airlines; see list below)
Perhaps there is hope. Virgin America, which was rated as the country’s best for the third year in a row, has also, finally, started to show a profit. Its passenger numbers are rising, too. If a domestic airline can really start making inroads by offering superior performance, then the big legacy carriers, used to hiding behind government protection, might just have to take notice. However, it might be advisable not hold your breath.
On the same day that the Airline Quality Rating was released, news came through that a baggage handler in Seattle had taken a nap in the belly of an Alaska Airlines plane. Having taken off, the airline had to make a quick turnaround when the pilot heard the (presumably now less sleepy) worker banging on ceiling of the hold. An American aviation worker sleeping on the job while the world around him carried on oblivious. As metaphors for the industry go it is pretty irresistible.
How the airlines fared (last year’s position in brackets)
1 (1) Virgin America
2 (3) Hawaiian
3 (4) Delta
4 (2) JetBlue
5 (5) Alaska
6 (8) Southwest (includes AirTran)
7 (9) American (includes USAirways)
8 (11) Frontier
9 (12) United (includes Continental)
10 (14) SkyWest
11 (13) ExpressJet
12 (15) Envoy/American Eagle