Virgin America Tops List of Best-Performing US Airlines, Spirit Lags

For the fourth year in a row, Virgin America topped the list of the country's best airlines, according to an annual report that found the industry performed better in 2015, but customer complaints still increased.

The Airline Quality Rating report — released Monday by Wichita State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona — is the longest-running airline quality evaluation in the country.

It ranks the nation's 13 domestic airlines as follows:

  1. Virgin America (soon to merge with Alaska Airlines)
  2. JetBlue
  3. Delta Airlines
  4. Hawaiian Airlines
  5. Alaska Airlines
  6. Southwest Airlines
  7. SkyWest Airlines
  8. United Airlines
  9. ExpressJet
  10. American Airlines
  11. Frontier Airlines
  12. Envoy Air
  13. Spirit Airlines

The rankings are based on four key categories: on-time performance, involuntary denied boardings, baggage handling and consumer complaints. On the whole, the air travel industry improved in each of the four from 2014 to 2015, the report found.

On-Time Performance

Hawaiian Airlines takes the cake for best on-time performance, while Spirit had the fewest on-time flights in 2015, according to the report.

"We struggled with our on-time performance because we are very aggressive with our schedules," said Paul Berry, a spokesperson for Spirit. "We put very little, to no pad in our schedules, to save our customers money on airfare."

Berry said the flight schedule is so full, airport delays create a chain reaction. He added that the airline is working to improve its timeliness.

Collectively, more flights were on time in 2015 than in 2014 — 79.9 percent compared to 76.2 percent, respectively.

Involuntary Denied Boardings

JetBlue and Hawaiian "are the clear industry leaders" in terms of involuntary denied boardings, which means they had the fewest number of passengers who were denied seats on oversold flights. Nine of the airlines evaluated had fewer denied boardings in 2015 than in 2014, with SkyWest showing the most improvement, according to the report.

Baggage Handling

Fewer bags were "lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered" in 2015 than the year before, with eight airlines showing improvement, according to the report. Virgin America was found to have the best baggage handling, with 0.84 "mishandled" bags per 1,000 passengers, while Envoy had the worst, at 8.52 bags per 1,000 people.

"Envoy has been adding a lot of additional resources with regard to baggage, especially transferring bags. That continues to be a priority in 2016 for American," said a spokesperson for American Airlines, which owns and operates Envoy. "But we are already seeing improvement, now that American/US Airways are on one system."

The industry rate of mishandled bags dropped from 3.62 in 2014 to 3.24 in 2015.

Customer Complaints

Despite better performance overall, customer complaints reached their highest level in 15 years, with a 37 percent increase in complaints from 2014 to 2015. Of the 15,260 complaints registered with the Department of Transportation, most were over problems with flights, baggage, tickets and customer service, according to the report.

"These results clearly show that the air traveling public is not happy. Passengers are reaching out and letting us know exactly that, based on the number of complaints filed with the Department of Transportation. The human element of air travel is obviously deteriorating, and passengers are fed up," said co-researcher Brent Bowen, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Alaska Airlines had the lowest rate of complaints, while Spirit had the highest. Berry said most of the airline's complaints come from first-time customers who book through third-party sites and "do not receive the same level of information about Spirit’s a la carte model" as those who book directly through the airline.

"We are constantly working to educate these first time customers," Berry said in a statement. "While we’re seeing some improvement, we still have some work to do in the area of customers who book on third party travel sites."

American Airlines said in a statement Monday the company "strives to improve the travel experience for all of [its] customers" and takes direction from customer complaints.

"We have several programs in different phases of development that we believe will greatly improve our customer service," the company said.

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