The 2013 Airline Quality Ratings (AQR) report -- released on Monday, April 8 -- shows that the U.S. Department of Transportation received a total of 11,445 complaints from disgruntled passengers in 2012, up from 9,414 in 2011.
Most of the common complaints concern what the report categorizes as "Flight Problems." This includes issues such as flight cancellations and delays. The second highest number of complaints has to do with reservation, ticketing and boarding issues, while the third usually involves dissatisfaction with customer service.
Dr. Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co-author of the AQR report, partially attributes the increase in complaint rate to the rising number of Americans traveling by air. Mindset plays a role, too: "The actual number of complaints is much higher because customers seem more willing to complain," he said.
Headley speculates that the growing number of consumer complaints directly relates to the American airline industry's economic growth. "Airlines have finally figured out supply and demand," he said, acknowledging airlines' efforts to reduce the number of available seats in order to improve their profit margin. "But it's a Catch-22. It's a good thing to have higher demand, but you'll make more people upset."
Other revenue-boosting efforts have also helped improve certain aspects of air travel. "Only after [airlines] started charging for bags did the baggage-handling service improve," Headley noted. Customer complaints and mishandled baggage account for two of the four criteria used by Headley and his co-author, Dr. Brent Bowen, head of the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University, to calculate the airline quality ratings. The report also evaluates each airline's on-time arrival performance and involuntary denied boarding rate (the number of times an airline "bumps" a passenger). Fourteen American carriers were assessed on these four criteria for the 2013 edition of the AQR report.
But whether or not the aviation industry will continue to grow their profits while satisfying flyer needs has yet to be seen. An unsteady economy and the possibility of sequester-related budget cuts to air traffic control services could threaten future progress. "Our system can only handle so much," Headley said. "When there's lower pressure on the system, everything works better. We've had a few good years -- the key is to keep it there while satisfying demand."
Despite Headley's positive outlook, the 2013 AQR report shows that some airlines could stand to improve. The carriers listed below received this year's lowest AQR scores, earning them a place on U.S. News Travel's annual list of America's "meanest" airlines.
Note: The Airline Quality Ratings (AQR) report does not categorize airlines as major or regional carriers.
[In Pictures: Full list of America's Best and Worst Airlines 2013]
America's Meanest Regional Carriers
3. American Eagle Airlines
AQR Score: -1.78
American Airlines's regional carrier saw improvement across all four of the categories evaluated for the 2013 AQR report. American Eagle Airlines has managed to better its punctuality, with 81.6 percent of flights making it to the gate on time in 2012 compared to only 76.3 percent in 2011. The carrier's denied boarding rate has also steadily declined. In 2010, American Eagle bumped 4.02 out of every 10,000 passengers; that number dropped to 1.07 in 2012. The airline has also reduced the number of bags mishandled per 1,000 passengers from 7.32 in 2011 to 5.8 in 2012; however, American Eagle still claims the highest mishandled luggage rate of all 14 major and regional airlines evaluated in the 2013 AQR Report.
2. SkyWest Airlines
AQR Score: -1.88
SkyWest (which works with such major airlines as United Airlines, US Airways and Delta) saw an increase in the number of consumer complaints per every 100,000 passengers -- from 0.73 in 2011 to 0.88 in 2012. The uptick is understandable given the carrier's rising mishandled baggage and involuntary denied boarding rates. The rate at which SkyWest bumps flyers jumped from 0.68 instances per every 10,000 passengers in 2011 to 2.32 in 2012. The airline improved its timeliness, with 2.3 percent more flights arriving on schedule in 2012 compared to 2011, but that doesn't make up for the number of passengers who weren't allowed to board their plane.
AQR Score: -1.95
The AQR report shows that this regional carrier -- operating under American Airlines, Delta and United Airlines -- has some work to do in terms of improving its customer care. The airline tied with American Airlines for the worst on-time arrival performance, with a whopping 23 percent of its flights failing to land on schedule. ExpressJet could also stand to better its track record with checked luggage. The airline reported 5.52 instances of mishandled baggage per every 1,000 passengers in 2012.
America's Meanest Major Carriers
5. Frontier Airlines
AQR Score: -0.78
Frontier Airlines would benefit from better time-management practices. In 2012, the carrier's on-time arrival percentage fell just below that of the industry, with roughly 22 percent of Frontier flights landing late. But while it may let punctuality slide, Frontier trumps several other airlines when it comes to effectively handling luggage (only 2.22 bags per 1,000 passengers were lost or damaged in 2012) and making sure that passengers are not bumped from their flights. The airline reported a denied boarding rate of 0.78 instances per every 10,000 passengers in 2012.
4. Southwest Airlines
AQR Score: -0.81
Very few flyers feel the need to gripe about Southwest Airlines. The bargain-rate carrier received fewer than 0.25 complaints per every 100,000 passengers in 2012. Compared to the rest of the industry, Southwest also performed above average in terms of timeliness and denied boarding rate. However, Headley's theory that checked-luggage fees lead to better baggage handling is proven here. The airline allows passengers to check two bags per person, free of charge, roughly three bags per every 1,000 passengers were lost or damaged in 2012, placing the carrier's mishandled baggage rate above that of the overall industry.
[See: Snakes on a Plane?]
3. US Airways
AQR Score: -0.87
US Airways has shown significant signs of improvement in its overall performance over the past couple of years. The carrier's on-time arrival performance jumped to 85.9 percent in 2012 from 79.8 percent in 2011. US Airways also decreased its denied boarding rates from 0.94 per every 10,000 passengers in 2011 to 0.68 in 2012 (better than the industry average). But US Airways still received the third-lowest AQR score of the 11 major carriers included in the 2013 report, and chances are that the airline will see its progress taper over the next couple of years due to its recent merge with American Airlines.
2. American Airlines
AQR Score: -1.11
American Airlines has taken great strides to improve its reputation among flyers, bettering both its involuntary denied boarding rate and the number of bags lost or damaged in 2012. However, the 2013 AQR report shows a rising number of customer complaints and a slipping on-time performance average. In 2012, only 76.9 percent of American Airlines flights made it to the gate on time, down from 77.8 percent in 2011. As a result, the carrier received the second-lowest AQR score of the 11 major carriers evaluated in the 2013 AQR report. What's more, Headley speculates that American Airlines will to see its overall AQR score drop in the coming years due to its recent merge with US Airways.
1. United Airlines
AQR Score: -2.18
United Airlines received the lowest AQR score out of all 14 major and regional airlines evaluated in the 2013 report, making it this year's "meanest" airline. The carrier saw its number of customer complaints per 100,000 passengers nearly double from 2.21 in 2011 to 4.24 in 2012. The carrier's increase in customer complains is likely the result of its merger with Continental Airlines (which was finalized in 2010). "This data year was the first data year following United's total absorption of Continental," Headley explained. "There are always kinks to work out, and these issues seem to be ones consumers feel are worth complaining about." United saw its performance deteriorate across the board in 2012, with its on-time arrival percentage dropping and its denied boarding and mishandled baggage rates climbing.
[In Pictures: Full List of America's Best and Worst Airlines 2013]
--Miriam B. Weiner