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Hawaiian rated best U.S. airline in 2009

Hawaiian Airlines did the best job for fliers last year, closely followed by low-cost carrier AirTran, according to an annual study released Monday that rates the nation’s 18 busiest airlines.
Image: Hawaiian Airlines aircraft
Hawaiian Airlines leads the list of 18 airlines for best overall quality of service.Ted Aljibe / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hawaiian Airlines did the best job for fliers last year, closely followed by low-cost carrier AirTran, according to an annual study released Monday that rates the nation’s 18 busiest airlines for the quality of their service.

At the bottom were three regional carriers: American Eagle, Atlantic Southeast and Comair.  Comair owned by mainline carrier Delta, was ranked fourth from last.

Hawaiian has been number one for three out of the last four years in the ratings, which are compiled by private researchers based on a combination of airlines’ records in four categories: on-time performance, mishandled baggage, denied boardings due mostly to overbookings, and consumer complaints to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

AirTran has been battling Hawaiian for the top spot. It was number one three years ago and finished second last year as well.

Overall, fewer passengers boarded planes last year, but those who did were generally treated better than in the past. Planes were more likely to land on time and bags were less likely to get lost.

As a result, passengers reported fewer complaints even while cash-strapped airlines reduced flight schedules and charged for everything from bags and pillows to prime spots in boarding lines.

U.S. air travel surged to about 770 million passengers in 2007, when airline performance suffered a near meltdown. Performance began improving two years ago as the economy took a toll on air travel. Passengers dropped to about 750 million in 2008 and fell to 704 million last year.

“We kind of turned a little bit of a corner in ’08 and we’re glad to say they’re continuing that generally positive (trend) for the consumer,” said Dean Headley, a Wichita State University professor and co-author of an annual analysis of airline quality. “Every airline that we looked at in ’08 and ’09 got better.”

Denied boardings
One cloud in the otherwise friendly skies was a slight increase in denied boardings, mostly due to overbooking. The increase was the natural result of fuller planes caused by a decrease in the number of scheduled flights, Headley said.

American Eagle had the highest rate of involuntary denied boardings at 3.76 per 100,000 passengers. Low-cost carrier JetBlue had so few denied boardings that its rate showed up as zero.

The improved service “does not mean we have fixed the system,” cautioned the report’s other co-author, Purdue University professor Brent Bowen.

Regional airlines, which are a growing share of flights and now account for half of all departures, have generally ranked at the bottom of the list, he noted. The rankings have been compiled for two decades.

Hawaiian — which flies to 10 U.S. mainland cities along with the Hawaiian Islands and to the Philippines, Australia, Samoa and Tahiti — has some advantages over other airlines. Many of its flights are short hops between islands in a climate generally favorable for flying, Headley noted.

Passengers didn’t check as many bags last year, perhaps in part due to baggage fees. That may be one reason why fewer than 4 bags per every 1,000 travelers were lost or damaged. The rate for lost bags last year was second best in the last 20 years and about half what it was in 2007.

AirTran fared best last year, with a mishandled bag rate of 1.67. The worst: Atlantic Southeast, at 7.87.

Fewer complaints
The recession hit airlines hard, and they have scrambled for ways to generate income other than by raising fares. U.S. airlines collectively lost $8 billion in 2009, although regional carriers as a group were profitable, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

More than 79 percent of airline flights arrived on time in 2009, 3.4 percent better than a year earlier. Fourteen of the 18 airlines included in the analysis improved their on-time performance from the year before. At the bottom was Comair, with only 69 percent of flights on time. Only slightly better was Atlantic Southeast, 71.2 percent.

Fewer than one in every 100,000 passengers filed complaints with the Department of Transportation, down slightly from the previous year. Southwest again had the lowest complaint rate — 0.21 complaints per 100,000 passengers. Delta, whose regional partners had the worst baggage and on-time performance, had the highest complaint rate, 1.96.

The ratings are based on statistics for airlines that carry at least 1 percent of the passengers who flew domestically last year. The research is sponsored by Purdue University in Indiana and by Wichita State University in Kansas.