Worst U.S. airline revealed: Are you surprised?
The worst U.S. airline, according to a new report, got twice as many complaints as last year, and 17 times more than Southwest, which got the fewest customer complaints.
United Airlines was the worst U.S. airline —and Virgin America was the best — among leading U.S. airlines last year, a report said Monday. Overall, carriers had their second-best score in the more than the two decades since researchers began measuring quality of service.Skip to next paragraph
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The report ranked the 14 largest U.S. airlines based on on-time arrivals, mishandled bags, consumer complaints, and passengers who bought tickets but were turned away because flights were overbooked.
Airline performance in 2012 was the second highest in the 23 years that Wichita State University in Kansas and Purdue University in Indiana have tracked the performance of airlines. The airlines' best year was 2011.
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Besides being the overall leader, Virgin America, headquartered in Burlingame, Calif., also did the best job on baggage handling and had the second-lowest rate of passengers denied seats due to overbookings. United Airlines, whose consumer complaint rate nearly doubled last year, had the worst performance. United has merged with Continental Airlines, but has had rough spots in integrating the operations of the two carriers.
This is the first year Virgin America, created in 2007, has been large enough to be included in the rankings. United carries roughly 18 times more passengers than Virgin America, and has 702 planes, compared to 52 for the smaller carrier.
The number of complaints consumers filed with the Department of Transportation overall surged by one-fifth last year to 11,445 complaints, up from 9,414 in 2011.
"Over the 20-some year history we've looked at it, this is still the best time of airline performance we've ever seen," said Dean Headley, a business professor at Wichita State University in Kansas, who has co-written the annual report. The best year was 2011, which was only slightly better than last year, he said.
Despite those improvements, it's not surprising that passengers are getting grumpier, Headley said. Carriers keep shrinking the size of seats in order to stuff more people into planes. Empty middle seats that might provide a little more room have vanished. And more people who have bought tickets are being turned away because flights are overbooked.
"The way airlines have taken 130-seat airplanes and expanded them to 150 seats to squeeze out more revenue, I think, is finally catching up with them," he said. "People are saying, 'Look, I don't fit here. Do something about this.' At some point airlines can't keep shrinking seats to put more people into the same tube," he said.
The industry is even looking at ways to make today's smaller-than-a-broom-closet toilets more compact in the hope of squeezing a few more seats onto planes.
"I can't imagine the uproar that making toilets smaller might generate," Headley said, especially given that passengers increasingly weigh more than they use to. Nevertheless, "will it keep them from flying? I doubt it would."
The rate of complaints per 100,000 passengers also rose to 1.43 last year from 1.19 in 2011.
United's 2012 ranking doesn't reflect its experience over the past six months, in which the airline has made significant improvements in performance, company spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said