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Best service ever? Airline industry sets surprising record.

A new report on the US airline industry found that, by four major measures including lost baggage and overbookings, customer service has never been better.

By Andrew MachContributor / April 2, 2012

In this file photo, an AirTran plane leaves Logan International Airport in Boston. AirTran was named the top US airline for customer service in a new survey.

Michael Dwyer/AP/File

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US airlines are providing passengers with the best service in at least 22 years, according to a study released Monday.

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In the last year, the airline industry improved in four major categories: on-time performance, baggage handling, involuntary denied boardings, and customer complaints, according to the Airline Quality Rating, a joint statistical performance analysis of 15 carriers. 

This makes 2011 the best year on record since the report’s private researchers began tracking airline quality two decades ago.

“The airlines are getting their act together and seizing control of the situations in which they must perform,” said Brent Bowen, head of the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University and one of the authors of the study, in a press release. “But with an increasing demand for air travel, they must be careful to keep things on track.”

The data, which are drawn from the US Department of Transportation’s monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, show airlines are doing slightly better since 2010 on the four basic performance measures.

  • The rate of on-time arrivals increased to 80 percent in 2011 from 79.8 percent in 2010.
  • The rate of mishandled bags decreased to 3.35 per 1,000 from 3.49.
  • Denied boardings improved to 0.78 per 10,000 passengers from 1.08.
  • Customer complaints dropped to 1.19 per 10,000 passengers from 1.22 the year before. 

“All four elements got noticeably better, but the big improvement for us this year is the involuntary denied boardings, that is, the amount of overbooked flights,” says Dean Headley, co-author of the report and a business professor at Wichita State University. “That dropped by 30 percent. We’ve never seen that big of an improvement by the industry in previous years.” 

For the second year in a row, low-cost carrier AirTran Airways topped the list of airlines, followed by Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Frontier Airlines, and Alaska Airlines. Frontier had the largest improvement in overall score, while Continental Airlines and Mesa Airlines had the largest decline in AQR score for 2011. Regional carrier American Eagle performed worst of the airlines rated in the study.

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