Image: Delta aircraft
Jewel Samad  /  AFP - Getty Images
Delta ranked first in five out of the ten categories, including complaint/problem resolution and quality of communications.
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updated 10/16/2011 12:44:07 PM ET 2011-10-16T16:44:07

Each year, Business Travel News publishes its Annual Airline Survey, ranking the five largest domestic airlines in the U.S. The results are based on a poll of 406 travel managers and buyers who spend more than $500,000 a year on flights booked in the U.S. BTN gathers data across 10 categories, including price value, flexibility in negotiation of prices, complaint resolution, and customer service. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the results of this year’s survey and added several factors that may be an indication of future performance, including airline revenue and profitability.

Delta took the top spot for the first time in the survey’s history. BTN wrote of Delta in the report “Flexibility in structuring transient and meetings pricing helped Delta clinch a first-place finish over United, according to survey results. Delta also topped all domestic competitors in complaint/problem resolution, quality of communications and the value of its network and partners.”

Airlines care about these reports because the industry is crowded and in trouble. There are a number of niche airlines like JetBlue and several large airlines from Asia and Europe that fly into major U.S. cities. All of the airlines on this list are also affected by high fuel prices, which have hurt profitability for three years, and by low seat demand due to the recession.

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An airline that struggles to fund its current staff levels and new plans may have to sacrifice routes or service to bring costs into line. Recent reports, for example, indicate that American Airlines’ parent AMR may file for Chapter 11. It is too early to say how many planes AA might take out of service if that were to happen, or how many routes might be shut down or workers laid off. Such an action, though, would almost certainly affect service.

These are the airlines, ranked best to worst, along with 24/7 Wall St.’s analysis of their prospects.

1. Delta Airlines

  • BTN airline score: 3.14 (the best)
  • Revenue: $31.1 billion
  • Net income: $593 million
  • Share price: $8.50, down 30 percent from 52-week high

For the first time, Delta beat the other competing airlines. The company ranked first in five out of the ten categories, including complaint/problem resolution and quality of communications. Delta bought Northwest Air in 2008, creating the world’s largest airline at the time. The move was motivated to some extent by the fact that $140 oil prices had put tremendous pressure on profits. The Northwest buyout was intended to let Delta take out redundant costs. Airline combinations often cause short-term problems with customer service as reservation systems need to be merged and duplicate routes are often cut. Lay-offs can also cause problems with customer service. Based on the results of this survey, Delta seems to have overcome those problems.

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2. United Airlines/Continental

  • BTN airline score: 3.12 (second best)
  • Revenue: $23.2 billion
  • Net income: $253 million
  • Share price: $19.32, down 25 percent from 52-week high

United and Continental merged in 2010, replacing Delta as the world’s largest airline. Continental was last year’s best-rated airline, but the merger has dropped the new company to second. United is still ranked first in three categories, including quality of customer service. United and Continental merged for much the same reasons as the Delta/Northwest deal. The merged company benefited from economies of scale and is now in the midst of an upgrade of its fleet. It will take delivery of 50 Boeing 787 Dreamliners soon. The airline recently upgraded its frequent flier program to make it more attractive to business travelers.

3. US Airways

  • BTN airline score: 3.07 (3rd best)
  • Revenue: $11.9 billion
  • Net income: $502 million
  • Share price: $5.44, down 40 percent from 52-week high

US Airways improved from last place in 2010 to third place this year. According to BTN: “Corporate travel buyers have recognized a more active and flexible US Airways, placing the carrier third overall in BTN’s survey and bestowing the highest rating in two categories: the value of relationships with account managers and overall price value.” US Air does not have nearly the overseas capacity that its larger rivals do. As a consequence, competes with them almost exclusively in the American market. This may have some advantages because US Air does not have to manage overseas routes to match foreign carriers like Lufthansa. These long-haul carriers have to make financial commitments to expensive fleets of big planes. US Air has one advantage over its domestic competition in the overseas route category. It is a member of the Star Alliance, the world’s largest airlines consortium. That means it can extend its routes to 160 nations using the alliances it has with its partners.

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4. American Airlines

  • BTN airline score: 2.94 (2nd worst)
  • Revenue last year: $22.2 billion
  • Net income: -$471 million
  • Share price: $2.50, down 60 percent from 52-week high

The BTN report states: “(F)ollowing a second-place finish in 2010, American Airlines’ scores this year declined in every category, with the largest decreases related to buyers’ perceptions of the value of its network and partnerships, quality of communications and availability of distribution channels.” American is by far the most troubled airline financially in the U.S. There have been rumors recently that it may file Chapter 11. The carrier says it cannot remain viable with the expense of its current labor contracts. American has already started to cut services. It will retire eleven 737s and suspend operations on several routes.

5. Southwest

  • BTN airline score: 2.9 (the worst)
  • Revenue: $12.1 billion
  • Net income: $459 million
  • Share price: $7.88, down 40 percent from 52-week high

Southwest often does well on airline customer satisfaction surveys. It prides itself on friendly service and the fact that it does not charge bag fees as most of its rivals do. But the carrier bought rival Airtran earlier this year, and investors are concerned that this transaction will hurt service and the airline’s reputation along with it. In this year’s rating, the company ranked last or second-to-last in all but one category. The company performed particularly poorly in its distribution channels and flexibility. Deutsche Bank recently downgraded Southwest’s shares to “hold” from “buy” because it believes the process of integrating the operations of the two carriers will be long and hard.

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Copyright © 2012 24/7 Wall St. Republished with permission.

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