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Are Airlines Getting Worse?

Think the experience of flying isn’t what it used to be? You’re not alone. U.S airline industry performance declined across the board last year, according to the latest Airline Quality Ratings Report. Overall industry performance worsened in each of the four areas measured: on-time arrival rate, passenger complaints filed, bags lost, and denied boardings. And while some airlines did better than others, a majority of carriers included in the report saw their quailty score decrease in the past year.

There are a few possible explanations for why airlines did worse in 2014. The increase in flight delays can be attributed in part to unusually harsh winter weather, but perhaps the biggest reason for the quality slip is the recent wave of consolidation in the airline industry. Brent Bowen, the report’s co-author, told The Dallas Morning News that “performance after two airlines merge always goes down for several years while they’re working out the kinks.” The four largest American carriers have all undergone mergers since the 2008 recession: American Airlines merged with US Airways, Delta with Northwest, Southwest with AirTran, and United with Continental. Could it be a coincidence that on-time performance fell and passenger complaints rose at all four of these airlines in 2014?

A Sign of Things to Come?

Well, maybe. 2014 was only the second year out of the past seven in which the airline industry’s overall quality rating fell. Still, there are reasons for passengers to fear that some of the factors driving record profits for airlines – namely, that increases in capacity are coming from adding more seats per flight, and more flights per plane – will also result in more overbooked and delayed flights. The findings from this report won’t do much to stop grumbling from travelers unhappy with the fact that average domestic airfare became 3% more expensive last year, depsite fuel costs being down 33%.

Here are some more of the major findings from the 2015 Airline Quality Rating Report:

Best and Worst Carriers

Virgin America had the highest overall quality score for the third consecutive year. Hawaiian Airlines, Delta, JetBlue and Alaska rounded out the top five. The worst performing airlines were all regional carriers. Envoy Air, which operates the majority of American Eagle flights, scored the lowest, followed by ExpressJet and SkyWest.

Passenger Complaints

The number of passenger complaints made to the U.S. Department of Transportation increased 22% in 2014. Alaska Airlines had the lowest complaint rate, while Frontier Airlines had the highest.

Lost Bags

Last year U.S. airlines mishandled one bag for every 275 passengers, meaning the rate at which bags were lost, stolen or delayed increased 13% from 2013. Virgin America performed the best. Envoy did the worst, losing one bag for every 110 passengers.

On-Time Arrivals

Airlines did a worse job of getting passengers to their destinations on time in 2014 than they did in 2013. The on-time arrival rate fell from 78.4% to 76.2%. Nearly 92% of Hawaiian Airlines flights arrived on time, a number which led the industry (and which might have something to do with the weather in Hawaii). Envoy again brought up the rear: over 31% percent of its flights were delayed.


The rate at which ticketed passengers were denied boarding on flights increased 3% in 2014. Overall, fewer than one passenger in 10,000 couldn’t board a flight because of overbooking. But flyer beware: you’re over 30 times more likely to be denied boarding on the worst performing airlines, ExpressJet and SkyWest, than on the best, Virgin America.

Airline Quality Rankings


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