Airlines Improved Performance Last Year, Report Shows

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One year after a United Airlines passenger was violently dragged off a plane for refusing to be bumped, United and most other airlines have dramatically reduced their rates of bumping passengers from overbooked flights.

An annual airline quality report card released Monday shows that airlines have improved in other areas of providing services, too, but the report’s authors caution that does not mean commercial airline travel has dramatically improved in significant ways.

The annual Airline Quality Rating by researchers at Wichita State and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical universities shows that as a whole, the 12 largest U.S. airlines improved their performance last year in 3 of the 4 categories tracked.

However, annoyances like cramped seats, cutbacks on freebies and extra fees for almost everything aren’t measured in the report — and they are wearing on airline travelers despite performance improvements in other areas, one of the report’s co-authors says.

One year ago, United Airlines suffered a public relations fiasco after passenger David Dao was dragged off a plane by security officers at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The officers were were summoned when Dao refused to give up his seat on a flight to Louisville, Ky. Cellphone video of a bloodied Dao being dragged sparked public outrage worldwide.

The data show that the rate of airlines losing or damaging checked luggage, involuntarily bumping passengers from overbooked flights and of passengers filing complaints against airlines with the federal Department of Transportation dropped in 2017 from 2016.

The only measure in this report by which airlines did worse last year than the year before was their on-time performance, and that dropped off only slightly, with 80 percent of flights arriving at their destinations on time in 2017 compared with 81 percent in 2016.

The study’s authors acknowledge that calling a drop in on-time performance “slight” is little comfort to those who are on the 1 in 5 flights that are canceled or delayed.

So does that mean the experience of flying on a commercial airliner is getting better?

“While it might be better in a standard performance way,” says Airline Quality Rating report co-author Dean Headley, a professor at Wichita State University, “I’m not sure the flying public is going to notice that [improvement].”

In other words, Headley answers with a twist on a catchy phrase, saying “airline travel is great again.”

“Now, you can follow that with a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point; [it] depends on what happened on your last flight.”

The airline quality reports show that three airlines that had been ranked near the bottom last year — United, American and Frontier — improved in every category. But one airline that had been ranked near the top, Virgin America, performed worse in every category.

Collectively, Headley says it seems that for every step forward the airlines take, they then take another step back.

“They do things to kind of help, but then they get the gun out and shoot themselves in the foot on the other end of the thing,” Headley says.

He points to things that aren’t measured in this report, such as the ever-shrinking economy class seat, as airlines jam more seats onto planes to pack more fare-paying bodies onto every plane. You can get more legroom, but you have to pay for it. Want to check your luggage? You likely have to pay for it.

“Our expectations have been lowered in flight travel,” he says, “and the airlines haven’t done anything [to] ratchet that back up.”

Headley notes that United in particular stands out for cutting its rate of involuntarily bumping passengers in half last year, but it did so only after video of the bloodied passenger being dragged off a plane went viral. United is changing its policies and procedures for transporting animals, but only after several high-profile cases of mishandling pets, including one in which a dog placed in an overhead bin died.

“I kind of get disappointed when it takes an incident, a very bad incident for the airlines to react and do something about it,” Headley says. “Shouldn’t they be thinking about this ahead of time if they care about customers and the customer experience?”

Passenger advocates echo those frustrations.

Kurt Ebenhoch of the group Air Travel Fairness notes that even though the bloodied passenger led to international outrage and prompted congressional hearings and demands for new legislation to hold airlines accountable, it resulted in little actual progress.

“Not a single law changed; not a single regulation was passed,” says Ebenhoch. “Nothing was done from a government perspective to prevent that from ever happening again.”

In fact, Ebenhoch says airlines are actively lobbying the Trump administration to further deregulate the industry, and he says the administration is “giving a green light” to such efforts and is “trying to take away just about every consumer protection that has been in place for an awfully long time.”

Ebenhoch notes that there wouldn’t even have been this annual airline quality report, which is now in its 28th year, if the airlines weren’t required to report their performance data.

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