WASHINGTON — For the second straight year, low-cost carrier AirTran Airways did the best job of getting passengers where they were going, says a survey exploring the all-too-familiar hassles of flying. American Eagle was ranked worst among the nation's 15 largest airlines, although United drew the most complaints.
Despite higher fares, new fees and canceled routes, flying is getting better overall, said researchers who analyzed federal data on airline performance during 2011. Key indicators on lost bags, delayed flights, bumpings from overbooked planes and consumer complaints to the government improved.
"Airlines are finally catching up with what their promise is, which is getting you there on time 80 percent of the time with your bags," said Dean Headley, a business professor at Wichita State University who has co-written the annual airline performance report for 22 years.
AirTran again topped the list, followed by similar repeat performances by Hawaii Airlines and JetBlue Airways in second and third places.
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Headley said airlines are slowly, steadily recovering from their meltdown five years ago, when, under the strain of near-record consumer travel demand, their performance tanked. Industry performance for all four measurements was slightly better in 2011 compared with 2010.
"They realize that people are paying a lot more money, and the system is more complex than it was, and they have to do a better job," he said. "To their credit, I think they are doing a better job."
In judging quality of performance, low-cost carriers that mainly fly between large hubs tend to fare the best, Headley said. The large airlines that have been around since before airline deregulation in the early 1980s tend to fall in the middle. Regional airlines, which often fly smaller planes and are more susceptible to weather delays, generally bring up the rear.