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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.

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The findings, which indicate four consecutive years of improved airline performance, illustrate progress the airline industry is making despite consumer perceptions to the contrary. A survey of frequent fliers conducted by Mr. Bowen and Mr. Headley shows just 11 percent of fliers think airlines are improving.

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Bowen says poor customer relations and a media focus on rare but colorful employee meltdowns are to blame.

Headley says it’s just a quirk of human nature.

“Flying is not fun, but it’s a necessity, and we see the negative more than the positive in that,” Headley says. “As a group, airline consumers tend think of flying as a negative experience when they show up on time with their bags, even though that’s exactly what they paid for." 

“With a mixed bag of gains and losses across the 15 carriers rated, the gain in AQR score for the industry is a positive sign,” the report says. “The improvement trend in AQR scores since 2007 speaks well of the industry maintaining in difficult times.”

With higher fuel costs and airfares trending up, there are more planes out of service and fewer seats available, Headley says, which means there is more pressure to deliver. 

But it’s clear the industry is responding to the strain of near-record consumer travel demand, he says. US airlines employed 2.1 percent more workers in January compared with a year before, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. This was the 14th consecutive month that employee levels have been higher than the same month the previous year.

This, Bowen says, is a definite sign of progress for the industry.

“The industry is becoming more productive and efficient, and you’ve got to have those bottom lines because that’s the most important thing for the consumer,” Bowen says. “Getting to their destination safely, on time, and with minimum hassles.”

“The fact is the airline industry is doing a decent job in a pretty complex system,” Headley says. “Given that we’ve seen improvements in various ways over the last four years, I can only hope that the trend stays there. If the airlines can figure out their dynamics and the public adjusts their expectations, we’re going to meet in the middle at some happy medium and thrive.”

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