Airlines are getting better — but some are better than others

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

Better or poorer “quality” depends on what you measure. When people think about the quality of any service, they consider two basic questions:

  • How good is the service, as the supplier designed and promised it? This is probably the way most consumers look at “quality.” In the case of an airline, this view of quality incorporates some combination of seat space and comfort, cabin service, inflight entertainment, crew friendliness, the boarding experience, frequent flyer program benefits, and such.
  • How reliably and consistently does the supplier deliver on the promise? This is the way industrial quality control folks look at their world: “quality” as conformance to specifications. If an airline offers only a bottom-level product but delivers it as promised, to a QC person, that’s “high quality.”

For more than a decade, professors now at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Wichita State University have published their annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR) report. Its conclusions lie firmly in the industrial approach to quality. Individual airline AQR scores are really nothing more than weighted composites — a “front end,” if you will — for annual airline performance data published in the Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Reports. When AQR started, its founders tried to include factors related to how good each airline’s product was, too, but they quickly found they couldn’t find reliable hard data to measure those qualitative elements: Instead, they focused strictly on performance, a move now noted in the subhead that refers to “performance” rather than “quality.”

DOT compiles data on four factors, as related to numbers of passengers: flights arriving on time, travelers “bumped,” bags mishandled, and consumer complaints. AQR gives weights to each factor and computes composite scores. Compared with 2014, for 2015 AQR found that airlines, overall, improved by a bit over 2 percent, from minus 1.24 to minus 1.21 (AQR scores are almost always minus, given the algebra involved).

In view of the slack in the various data collections, I’m not much in favor of drawing fine airline-by-airline distinctions based on scores to three-place accuracy. And because of the way they operate, I exclude regionals from my interpretation of the AQR data. But when you step back a bit, you find some interesting groupings:

  • The five top lines, with scores in the range of -0.4 to -0.8, are Alaska, Delta, Hawaiian, Jet Blue, and Virgin America. Of these, Alaska, JetBlue, and Virgin America perennially earn top marks based on the “consumer” view of quality, as well. The lone giant, Delta, also seems to be rising above its giant rivals among travelers for its product. And Hawaiian’s route structure gives it a big advantage in performance scoring.
  • The three average lines, American, Southwest, and United, occupy the large middle ground range with scores between -1.0 and 1.7. This result, too, seems in line with consumer quality perceptions of being “commodity” lines.
  • And at the bottom, Frontier, and Spirit, with scores of -2.6 and -3.2, fit nicely with their reputation as bottom feeders from both the “how good is the product” and performance measures.

Any time you see a report like the AQR, the logical question to ask is, “Should the scores influence my choice of airline?” My answer is “sometimes.”

  • The main take-away from this year’s AQR is that you’re more likely to be satisfied on Alaska, Jet-Blue, and Virgin America than on other lines: Those lines try to deliver a better product than their main competitors, and they also deliver it more reliably.
  • Among the giant lines, Delta seems to be pulling ahead of its giant rivals, and Southwest outscores American and United, as well.
  • The ultra-low-fare lines, Frontier and Spirit, earn a double whammy: they offer a bottom end product and then don’t deliver it well. They’re the lines of choice for travelers who value low fares above all else.

Still, there’s no getting away from the fact that, for most of you, schedules and fares trump “quality” factors, however measured. But the quality measures can be useful tie-breakers.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website.)

Tribune Content Agency — April 26, 2016


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