Airlines show improved service

WASHINGTON — Hawaiian Airlines topped an annual quality study of U.S. air carriers as the industry took some of the hassle out of flying last year and delivered its best performance in four years.

The improvement came just a year after airlines earned their worst marks for passenger complaints in more than a decade.

Right behind Hawaiian in the overall ratings of 17 airlines were AirTran and JetBlue, according to a study based on government statistics that was released Monday by private researchers. The legacy airlines — American, Continental, Delta and United — were clustered in the middle, while regional air carriers, including Kentucky-based Comair, filled out the bottom rungs.

The airline industry flew fewer people in 2008 but treated them better, arriving on time more often and losing fewer bags, the study said. Passengers also were not as apt to be bumped from flights by overbooking.

The downside: Fewer flights, higher prices — some airlines now charge extra for any luggage — and fewer frills.

The study found that consumer complaints dipped from 1.42 per 100,000 passengers in 2007 to 1.15 in 2008. Southwest Airlines had the best rate, only 0.25 complaints per 100,000 passengers; US Airways had the worst at 2.25.

Half of all complaints involved baggage or flight problems such as cancellations, delays or other schedule deviations.

The average on-time performance last year was 3 percentage points better than the year before, yet nearly one-quarter of all flights were late. The study said 12 airlines improved from the previous year, but only three had better than an 80 percent on-time rate: Hawaiian, 90 percent; Southwest, 80.5 percent; and US Airways, 80.1 percent.

American had the worst record, arriving on time only 69.8 percent of the time.

The rate of passengers denied boardings — usually bumpings due to overbooking — dipped slightly, from 1.14 per 10,000 passengers to 1.1 in 2008.

All the airlines did a better job handling passengers' baggage. The mishandled-baggage rate fell from 7.01 bags per 1,000 passengers in 2007 to 5.19 bags in 2008.