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Misery in the Air: Flyer Frustration Climbs

Virgin America ranked #1, United Airlines worst 0:57

Perhaps the most telling indication of how frustrated passengers have become is the number of complaints about airlines filed last year with the Department of Transportation.

"They (complaints) are up 20-25 percent this year over last year and they were up before that so they (customers) are complaining more about a system that just is not working," said Headley.

Overall, the Airline Quality Rating has dropped to its lowest level since 2008.

Besides a spike in complaints about airline service, the AQR also found:

  • On-time arrivals dropped 2 percent
  • A slight increase in the percentage of passengers bumped from flights
  • Mishandled baggage climbed 11 percent

The slumping performance of airlines confirms what many critics feared would happen when major carriers started merging six years ago. Since 2008, there have been four mergers among the eight largest airlines in the U.S.

When Northwest merged with Delta, Continental with United, Airtran with Southwest and U.S. Air with American the architects of the deals claimed the larger, more efficient airlines would deliver better service for travelers.

The authors of the Airline Quality Rating say that hasn't happened because airlines are focused on boosting profits by limiting the number of seats available while also charging customers for a wide variety of services like checked bags and in-flight connectivity.

"There is a lot of consolidation and a lot of mergers so there is a lot of turmoil and I think that is playing itself out to the customer to have a poor experience when they do fly," said Headley. "They just seem to have not gotten their act together."

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.