The nation's airlines improved their on-time performance and baggage handling rates in 2012 but passenger complaints rose anyway, a reflection of increased unhappiness with air carriers, according to authors of a new study.
Despite better performance by airlines in key areas, the rate of complaints against carriers jumped 20% in 2012 compared with the previous year. Most of the gripes focused on flight problems, reservations, ticketing, boarding and consumer service, according to a report issued Monday by professors at Wichita State and Purdue universities.
Even where airlines show improvements, experts say the progress may be a happy byproduct of other industry developments.
Airlines may be arriving on time at a higher rate because the number of flights has been on the decline as a result of several major airline mergers in the last five years, the study's authors said.
"Every time the system get simpler, less taxing, the performance gets better," said Dean Headley, a marketing professor at Wichita State, coauthor of the Airline Quality Rating report with Brent Bowen, a professor and aviation expert at Purdue University.
Airline industry representatives disagree, saying their performance has improved because carriers have invested in new products and services.
"U.S. airlines have been working to improve the customer experience and have reinvested more than $9 billion last year, which has resulted in the best-ever bag handling and third-best on-time performance," said Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group for the nation's airlines.
She added that the increase in complaints is modest and remains relatively low compared to other service industries.
The Airline Quality Rating report looked at several key airline statistics monitored by federal agencies and weighted them based on the services that experts believe are most important to air travelers. The overall quality rating score for the industry dropped to minus 1.11 in 2012 from minus 1.08 in 2011, according to the report.
Virgin America received the highest score from the study, followed by JetBlue Airways and AirTran Airways. The lowest scores went to United Airlines, Express Jet and SkyWest airlines.
United officials said the low ranking may be partly because the airline was undergoing a difficult time merging with Continental Airlines in 2012. But they added that United's services and performance ratings have improved in the last seven months.
"Today is a very different day," United spokesman Raahsan Johnson said.
In 2012, the nation's top 14 airlines improved their on-time performance, with 81.8% of flights arriving on time, up from 80% in 2011, according to the study. The airlines did a better job of delivering bags, with 3.07 bags lost or mishandled per 1,000 passengers, down from 3.35 in 2011.
Although the number of bags carried per passenger has dropped about 17% since airlines began to impose checked-bag fees in 2008, the bag-per-passenger rate has remained mostly flat over the last three years, according to statistics from the Transportation Security Administration.
The rate of complaints filed against airlines increased to 1.43 per 100,000 passengers last year, up from 1.19 in 2011. The rate of passengers denied boarding because of overbooked planes jumped to 0.97 per 10,000 passengers in 2012, up from 0.78 in 2011, according to the study.
Despite the increase in complaints, the demand for airline seats has remained strong over the past few years, with most airlines reporting steady — although narrow — profit margins in 2012. Headley predicts that the demand won't slow down soon.
"A sizable number of passengers are still unhappy," he said. "Are they going to stop flying? That's doubtful."