WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — As more travelers take to the skies again, airlines are having trouble meeting their passengers’ needs. The Airline Quality Rating (AQR) released Wednesday points to late arrivals, bumped passengers and lost baggage as problem areas.

Wichita State University releases the AQR annually. In its 32nd year, the report is the nation’s longest-running study of domestic airline performance quality. This year, AQR put Southwest at the top of the quality list.

2021 ranking of the 10 largest airlines
(The 2020 ranking is in parentheses)

  1. Southwest (1)
  2. Hawaiian (9)
  3. Delta (3)
  4. Allegiant (2)
  5. Alaska (4)
  6. United (8)
  7. Frontier (10)
  8. JetBlue (6)
  9. American (7)
  10. Spirit (5)

AQR researchers Dr. Dean Headley and Dr. Brent Bowen say that while the number of complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) dropped dramatically from 2020 — when many customers wanted COVID-related refunds — total complaints remained higher than average.

With COVID-19 restrictions lifting, the number of domestic passengers increased by 83%, from 295 million in 2020 to 540 million in 2021. If the number continues to climb closer to the 790 million who traveled in 2019, the airlines’ problems could also rise.

“Within the industry, there is a lot of talk about the airlines being back from the pandemic, but performance was worse in three of the four major indicators,” said Headley, emeritus associate professor of marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University. “We have the history to show that as passenger volume rises, so do performance problems. It could take another two or three years for airlines to address these issues.”

He said staffing and plane inventory are two key problems.

“Airlines want to hire people, but they have not been able to do it quickly,” Headley said in a news release. “The pandemic forced airlines to lay off pilots as well as baggage handlers and gate agents. Many of those folks took other jobs, and they aren’t coming back.”

Inside the ratings

AQR analyzes data from DOT to provide an objective comparison of airline quality. The four categories in the study include on-time performance, involuntary denied boardings, baggage handling, and consumer complaints.

On-time performance

On-time for 2021 by the industry was 79.1% compared to 83.6% in 2020. Five of the ten airlines rated had an on-time arrival percentage of over 80%.

  1. Hawaiian 90.1%
  2. Delta 87.8%
  3. United 81.3%
  4. Alaska 81.2%
  5. American 80.5%
  6. Spirit 76.7%
  7. Frontier 76.6%
  8. Southwest 75.8%
  9. JetBlue 72.3%
  10. Allegiant 68.3%

Involuntary denied boardings (bumped passengers)

Involuntary denied boarding includes the number of passengers who hold confirmed reservations and are involuntarily denied boarding on a flight that is oversold, and whose flight departs without them on board.

AQR found industry performance was noticeably worse in 2021 (0.17) per 10,000 passengers than it was in 2020 (0.08).

Frontier had the highest involuntary denied boardings rate at 0.95 per 10,000 passengers.

  1. Allegiant .00 per 10,000 passengers
  2. Delta .00
  3. Hawaiian .00
  4. United .00
  5. JetBlue .02
  6. Alaska .05
  7. Spirit .13
  8. American .20
  9. Southwest .33
  10. Frontier .95

Baggage handling

The mishandled baggage rate for the industry changed from 3.96 per 1,000 checked bags in 2020 to 4.97 per 1,000 checked bags in 2021.

  1. Allegiant 1.74 mishandled bags per 1,000 checked bags
  2. Hawaiian 2.34
  3. Frontier 3.08
  4. Southwest 3.73
  5. Spirit 4.38
  6. United 4.43
  7. Delta 4.74
  8. JetBlue 4.83
  9. Alaska 6.43
  10. American 8.25

Consumer complaints

The industry rate for customer complaints per 100,000 passengers decreased from 11.75 in 2020 to 3.44 in 2021.

AQR said Delta had the lowest consumer complaint rate while Spirit had the highest.

  1. Delta 1.29 per 100,000 passengers
  2. Southwest 1.36
  3. Alaska 2.10
  4. American 3.45
  5. Hawaiian 3.69
  6. Allegiant 4.67
  7. United 4.93
  8. Frontier 5.78
  9. JetBlue 6.38
  10. Spirit 11.45

AQR also lists the type of complaints. Refunds topped the list.

Nature of complaints to DOT% of all complaints
received in 2021
% of all complaints
received in 2020
Refunds32.782.8
Flight problems27.02.7
Fares9.84.8
Reservations, ticketing, boarding8.32.4
Customer service7.83.1
Disability6.01.3
Baggage5.81.4
Other1.01.2
Oversales1.0.2
Discrimination.5.1
Advertising.1.0
Source: Air Travel Consumer Report, U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings.

To see the full Airline Quality Rating 2022, click here.