Plane truth: Airline quality at highest level ever, report says

Delta Air Lines was named the top US carrier for 2018.
Delta Air Lines was named the top US carrier for 2018. Associated Press/File/Associated Press

The number of complaints filed against US airlines plummeted by 23 percent in 2018. Reports of involuntary denied boardings and mishandled bags dropped as well.

Delta Air Lines was the top carrier in the country according to the annual Airline Quality Rating study, followed by JetBlue and Southwest Airlines. Alaska Airlines, which ranked highest in 2017 and 2016, dropped to fourth place.

Perennial bottom-of-the-heap discount carrier Frontier Airlines pulled up to the rear of the runway with the highest number of customer complaints and the largest percentage of late flights.

Six airlines (Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, and United) showed improvement in 2018. Spirit Airlines had the largest improvement in their rating, soaring above American Airlines and hoisting itself out of its 2017 last place finish.


According to the ratings, released Monday by Wichita State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, US-based airlines scored higher in 2018 than any previous year since the survey began in 1991.

“Of the nine airlines, the difference between the top and bottom rated carriers got closer,” said Dean Headley, emeritus professor of marketing at Wichita State. “So that tightened the pack, which is good. It’s becoming a more consistent experience across the array of airlines that people have to choose from. That can’t be anything but positive.”

The Airline Quality Rating tracks performance in four categories: On-time performance, involuntary denied boardings, mishandled baggage, and consumer complaints. Of the four categories, only on-time performance slipped slightly. Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance in the industry with 89.3 percent of its flights arriving on time. Frontier Airlines, which began flying out of Boston earlier this year, had the worst with 69.4 percent of flights arriving on schedule.

Southwest Airlines had the lowest number of customer complaints, with a complaint rate of .36 per 100,000 passengers. Frontier’s complaint rate was highest with 4.02 out of 100,000 passengers discontent with their experience. In all cases, customers complained most about cancellations and delays.


The Air Quality Rating is based on information compiled by the US Department of Transportation. It does not take into account consumer reports filed with airlines, and complaints made on social media.

Headley said he was encouraged to see how swiftly and effectively airlines worked to curtail involuntary denied boarding, which occurs when airlines oversell a flight.

“Look at United, he said. “They had a public relations disaster dragging that poor fellow [David Dao] off the plane. There were several incidents that occurred after that with other airlines. But you look at United’s denied boardings now and they’re wonderful.”

Involuntary denied boardings improved for every airline, expect Frontier and Spirit. Hawaiian, JetBlue, and United all tied for the lowest number of involuntary denied boardings.

“There weren’t a lot denied boardings in 2018,” Headley said. “Across the entire industry you have about 770 to 800 million passengers annually. Of that number it maybe happened maybe 500 times. You probably have a better chance of winning the lottery. The takeaway is that they saw a problem, and they were able to fix it.”

Of the four categories rated, only on-time performance dipped, and the drop was less than one percent. In 2018, 79.6 percent of flights were on time versus 80.2 percent in 2017.

“I’m not panicking about the decline of on-time flights,” Headley said. “There’s still some issues for them to work on, no doubt. But a lot of it has to do with weather systems. We know the East Coast catches the devil in the winter time. This time of year you’re getting thunderstorms and tornadoes in the South and Midwest.”


While the drop in complaints against airlines certainly sounds like a positive development, Headley said the numbers may belie the truth.

“It’s kind of a bittersweet thing,” he said. “Either the airlines are getting better, or people just aren’t complaining anymore. Either they’re just fed up and they’re not complaining anymore, or they’re not complaining to the Department of Transportation. There could be a certain level of resignation on the part of the consumer.”

The lesson, he says, is to complain to the airline first, and then complain to the Department of Transportation. He said if the complaint isn’t logged with the DOT, then “there’s a good chance we’re never going to hear about it, because the airline certainly isn’t going to report it.”

Here are the top US airlines of 2018 according to the Airline Quality Rating.

1. Delta Air Lines

2. JetBlue

3. Southwest Airlines

4. Alaska Airlines

5. Hawaiian Airlines

6. United Airlines

7. Spirit Airlines

8. American Airlines

9. Frontier Airlines

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Mutherand in Instagram @Chris_Muther.