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Best airlines for 4 types of fliers

Which to fly if you have lots of baggage, want to arrive on time and more.

By Karen Datko Apr 19, 2010 9:16AM

This Deal of the Day comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner site SmartMoney.


It’s report card time for the airlines.


Each year, the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University and the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University release their Airline Quality Rating (AQR), an analysis of Department of Transportation data on topics like: Which airline does the best job at getting bags to their destination? Which has the best arrival and departure records? 


The bad news is there are no across-the-board winners in the 2009 survey, released last week, so travelers basically have to decide which service or factors are most important. What’s more, depending on a passenger's destination, there might not be a choice at all, says Anne Banas, the executive editor of deal-tracking site

Start with figuring out the flying situation that matters most to you and then see which airlines rate highest in your category, according to the 2009 survey and airline experts’ take.


Checking a bag

Baggage fees have become a cash cow for the airlines. Airlines collected $464 million in bag fees during all of 2007 -- less than a quarter of the $2 billion reeled in during the first nine months of 2009, according to Department of Transportation figures. In January, Continental raised its fee for a first checked bag from $18 to $25, prompting other carriers to make similar fee changes. Then earlier this month, Spirit Airlines announced it would charge passengers $45 at the gate for a carry-on to place in the overhead bins; $30 if they pay in advance online. (Travelers can bring on one item that fits beneath the seat for free.) Prepay for bags to limit your bill.


The upside of those fees -- and flight cutbacks -- is that handlers have more time to move fewer bags, says Dean Headley, a researcher behind the Airline Quality Rating and an associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University. In 2007, airlines mishandled an average 7.01 bags per 1,000 passengers; in 2009, the rate dropped to 3.88.


So, if you want to get your baggage to its destination intact, which airlines rate best and worst, according to the study?

  • Best: AirTran had the best rating, with just 1.67 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. Its $15 fee for a first checked bag is less than the $20 to $25 other airlines charge. JetBlue is another good choice. The first checked bag is free, and the airline rates third-fewest in the mishandled bags category with a 2.56. Southwest has a better-than-average rate of 3.43, and allows two free checked bags.
  • Worst: Atlantic Southeast, a Delta and United connection carrier, mishandles 7.87 bags per 1,000 passengers, according to the AQR. You’ll also pay $25 for your first checked bag. That’s on the high end compared with most carriers, but still cheap compared with Spirit. There, travelers pay $15 to $45 for their first checked bag, $20 to $45 for one carry-on. (Spirit wasn’t assessed in the AQR.) “We continuously work with our partners to improve our baggage numbers,” says an Atlantic Southeast spokeswoman. (In fact, the 2009 figure is an improvement over 2008’s 9.82.) Spirit did not respond to a request for comment.

Saving a buck

Airlines struggling to profit amid the recession turned to a mix of tactics. Fare sales -- including coupon codes and fares exclusive to Twitter followers -- lead consumers to book through the airline site, reducing revenue it pays to third-party booking sites. Fees have also sprung up for traditionally free things, like picking your seat (any seat, not just the ones with more leg room) or enjoying a midflight soda, Banas says. Last year, the major airlines also tacked on a $10 fare surcharge for traveling on peak days -- in most cases, just before or after a major holiday.


The study’s winners and losers on prices and deals:

  • Best: JetBlue. The budget carrier offers a range of fare sales, including Tuesday deals exclusive to its Twitter feed, @JetBlueCheeps, Banas says. Fliers also get value added, in the form of a first bag checked free, free snacks and in-flight TV (36 channels free) and satellite radio (free). Other fees are low. AirTran and Southwest are good runners-up, with ample fare sales and low fees, she says.
  • Worst: “The thing about Spirit that irritates the dickens out of me, they’re one of the only airlines I know that charges a convenience to use their website,” says Tom Parsons, the chief executive for That’s $5. You’ll also pay $2 to $3 for regular beverages and $8 to $20 per flight segment to pick your seat. With those fess, baggage fees and a fuel surcharge, it’s usually the pricier choice, despite any fare sales, he says.

Arriving on time

Volcanic ash cancelations aside, on-time performance has improved dramatically as airlines cut seats and scale back the number of flights. “Fewer airplanes frees up space,” Headley says. Airlines can easily schedule landing and takeoff slots, as well as pad time between connecting flights, to cut down on lost bags and passenger complaints. In 2009, six of the 18 airlines the AQR assessed -- Alaska, Hawaiian, SkyWest, Southwest, United and US Airways -- had on-time performance rates of more than 80%. In 2007, just Southwest (80.1%), Hawaiian (93.3%) and the now-defunct Aloha (92.2%) did.


But fewer flights also means fewer open seats available for passengers bumped from an overbooked flight. That can translate to a long wait at the airport. Involuntary bumps were the one area of the AQR where airlines got worse in 2009, Headley says. The industry bumped an average 1.19 per 10,000 passengers, compared with 1.10 in 2008. To lessen your chances of getting bumped, check in early and, if you’re waitlisted, be nice to the gate agent. “The agent has complete control,” he says. “They’re trying to follow what they think will give them the best situational outcome.”


AQR’s picks for arrival and departure time:

  • Best: Hawaiian Airlines beat the group with the best on-time performance rating (92.1%) and the second-best involuntary bump rating (0.03 per 10,000 passengers). Not heading to Hawaii? Southwest had the second-best on-time performance rating of 83%, and bumped an average 1.29 per 10,000 passengers, putting it just slightly worse than average. They don’t depend on the hub system most airlines use, which helps improve performance, Parsons says. JetBlue has the best bump rating, displacing 0.00 -- yep, that’s zero -- per 10,000 passengers, and an on-time performance rating of 77.5%, slightly less than the average 79.4%.
  • Worst: Regional airlines, which tend to settle at the bottom of the AQR, operate less efficiently because their operations usually center out of a single hub and smaller regional airports, Headley says. “They don’t have the resources of a hub to handle problems” such as inclement weather or mechanical difficulties, he says.

American Eagle (an offshoot of American Airlines) was among the lowest, bumping 3.76 per 10,000 passengers (up from 2.44 in 2008), and with an on-time performance rating of 77.2%. An American Eagle spokeswoman pointed out that the airline has improved on-time performance compared with 2008 (when it was 69.8%), and has worked to improve customer service for operational performance areas it can control. “We have the most exposure to the largest bad weather hub in the country -- Chicago O’Hare,” she says. “No other regional airline has so much of its service in a big bad-weather hub.”


Atlantic Southeast had the worst on-time performance rating of 71.2%, and bumped 2.27 passengers per 10,000. An Atlantic Southeast spokeswoman says on-time performance has improved in recent years (up from 64.7% in 2007, but down from 74.2% in 2008). “Nearly 85% of Atlantic Southeast’s flights operate out [of Atlanta] … with weather and air traffic issues that disproportionately impact our performance,” she says. “It is improbable for carriers included in the AQR to reach its upper tier without balancing significant operations across multiple hubs.”


Flying hassle-free

Air traveler frustrations have become big press. Among recent incidents: Film director Kevin Smith took to Twitter in February to complain after Southwest deemed him “too fat to fly"; over the course of a year, musician Dave Carroll created three music videos about United breaking his guitar; and an American Airlines passenger blogged about how a fellow traveler’s request for orange juice escalated into a warning that he was violating federal law. According to the AQR, complaints have actually decreased -- 1.15 per 10,000 passengers in 2008 to 0.97 in 2009 -- but that only reflects complaints to the Department of Transportation, Headley says. Problems reported solely to the airline aren’t reported. There’s also no way to tell how many were successfully resolved.

Who rated best in the survey for hassle-free travel?

  • Best: Southwest had just 0.21 complaints per 100,000 passengers and was also voted a traveler favorite two years running in the AQR Consumer Satisfaction survey, Headley says. “They must be resolving problems to keep people coming back,” he says. Southwest and JetBlue are tops with consumers using, too. “Those two airlines seem to come out on top,” Banas says.
  • Worst: Delta, with 1.96 complaints per 100,000 passengers. That’s well above the average 0.97. (To put it in perspective, the next-worst, United, had a rate of 1.34.) Delta did not respond to a request for comment.

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