updated 11/10/2008 2:39:32 PM ET 2008-11-10T19:39:32

Low-cost carriers topped the rankings of U.S. airlines for being on-time and uniting bags with passengers, while the big guys such as American Airlines brought up the rear, according to a new study of airline quality.

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Overall airline performance continued a 5-year slide during the first half of this year, the researchers said in the study released Monday. But there were encouraging signs that the performance of the nation's top 17 airlines might be improving, as on-time arrivals and customer complaint rates improved in early summer over last year's levels.

The report's authors said the airlines might continue to sharpen their on-time performance because the skies are less crowded. Carriers have been eliminating flights in a move designed to reduce costs and drive up ticket prices by creating seat shortages.

"Air travel will cost more, but if you can find a seat, it may be operating better," said Dean Headley, a co-author of the report and a marketing professor at Wichita State University.

Headley said the dreaded holiday travel season — December is usually the worst month for airline performance — also could be better than expected.

The researchers said low-cost airlines led the rankings, trailed by the bigger legacy carriers that operate vast and complicated hub-and-spoke flight networks.

Hawaiian Airlines was rated best at being on-time, at 92 percent for the January-June period. AirTran Airways was tops at handling baggage, and Southwest Airlines Co. best in customer complaints, at one for every 300,000 customers. JetBlue Airways had the fewest denied boardings.

AMR Corp.'s American Airlines was the worst in on-time performance, at just 63.2 percent. UAL Corp.'s United Airlines had the highest rate of customer complaints, seven times more than Southwest.

AMR's American Eagle, a feeder airline for American, was the worst baggage handler, mishandling luggage more than three times as often as AirTran.

Ratings by the Wichita State and Saint Louis University researchers were based on information compiled by the U.S. Transportation Department.

The academics' report is one of several widely watched measures of airline quality. Last week, the Transportation Department reported that more flights arrived on time in September but that cancellations increased.

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