The overall "quality" score of the 15 biggest U.S. airlines for 2013 increased enough over their 2012 performance to the best level ever recorded. At least that's what the authors of the annual "Airline Quality Rating" (AQR) scores have to say. In 2013, reductions in denied boarding (bumping) and consumer complaints offset slightly poorer on-time arrivals and numbers of mishandled bags.
AQR scores are a composite of four statistical measures compiled and reported by the U.S. Department of Transportation: on-time performance, how many travelers were denied boarding, how many bags the line mishandled and how many complaints were logged by the DOT's consumer program, all adjusted to a consistent per-passenger index. The authors emphasize that their scores are based solely on "objective" data rather than "subjective" consumer surveys.
Virgin America, followed by JetBlue, Hawaiian, Delta and Alaska. Three regional lines -- American Eagle, SkyWest and ExpressJet -- were the lowest scorers; Frontier and United rounded out the lowest five. Notable scorers in each individual category (excluding regionals):
-- On-time arrivals: Best scores, Hawaiian, Alaska and Delta; worst scores, Frontier, JetBlue and Southwest.
-- Bumped passengers: Best scores, JetBlue and Virgin America (virtually none on either); worst scores, AirTran, Frontier, Southwest and United.
-- Mishandled bags: Best scores, Virgin America and JetBlue; worst scores, Southwest, AirTran and United.
-- Complaints to DOT: Best scores, Alaska and Delta; worst scores, Frontier, United and American.
Overall, the 2013 winners and losers largely amounted to "round up the usual suspects." Virgin America and JetBlue well above average; United worst among the legacies. Delta scored best among the giant legacy lines, with American and US Airways also scoring poorly. And regionals continue to score well below average. The one puzzlement is why mishandled baggage scores dropped: Given increasing baggage check fees, you'd think the opposite. Perhaps it's time for consumers to pressure other lines into following Alaska's policy: If you don't get your bag within 20 minutes, we give you a $25 credit or 2,500 miles.
Current-year AQR scores have generally been fair predictors of future performance. A few lines, however, changed substantially from 2012: AirTran dropped seven position places and Frontier dropped four.
Since AQR started, I've had a big problem with the scores and exactly what "quality" they measure:
-- Industrial quality control experts define quality as how well a supplier delivers on what it promises.
-- Consumers tend to think of quality as how good the product is.
The AQR scores reflect only the industrial or delivery side of quality -- how closely each airline comes to meeting the basic obligations it has assumed. Score components other than complaint numbers measure more the absence of problems rather than any positive experience.
The problem with delivery-based scores is that an airline such as Ryanair -- the worst in the world, by many accounts -- could earn a good AQR score by delivering it's terrible product consistently. AQR scores have nothing to say about those "how good is the product" factors that affect how much you might enjoy a flight -- seat space, onboard service, in-flight entertainment, and such -- nor do they account for such consumer benefits as no-charge checked baggage or the availability of frequent flyer seats.
When you select an airline, I suspect that those "how good" factors tend to outweigh the AQR factors by far, especially because the spread between top and bottom AQR performance scores is pretty narrow. That's why, in my book, I prefer JetBlue over Virgin America every time because of its substantially better seat space and no-charge checked bag. And, among the legacies, I choose United over Delta because of Delta's abysmal record for availability of frequent flyer award seats.
So use the AQR scores if you wish. But for most of you, choosing the best product is probably more important.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at)mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)
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