Across the board, airline performance declined in 2006, but it also was the safest year in the skies on record.
According to the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) annual safety report, air transportation is the safest form of travel, with one accident per every 1.5 million flights, a 14 percent improvement on 2005 numbers.
“We must do even better,” says Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s director general and CEO. “With demand for air travel increasing at 5 to 6 percent per year, the accident rate must decrease just to keep the actual number of accidents in check. The goal will always be zero accidents.”
Increased air travel demand is to blame for an overall decline in industry performance, according to the 17th annual national Airline Quality Ratings (AQR) study. Co-researchers Brent Bowen, director and professor of the University of Nebraska at Omaha Aviation Institute/School of Public Administration, and Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University, tracked month-by-month quality ratings for the largest domestic U.S. airlines operating during 2006 and ranked airlines according to performance in four criteria: on-time arrivals, baggage handling, customer complaints and denied boardings. The findings showed a marked decline in industry performance in three of the four criteria.
“We’re back to full passenger volume similar [to where] we were before 9/11,” explains Headley. “We also have about 18 to 20 percent less seat capacity in the system now. It’s a very complex system with high volume, and it just doesn’t hold up well under the pressure.”
Forty-nine percent of all complaints to the Department of Transportation were for flight problems or baggage complaints. Only three of the 18 rated airlines had an on-time arrival rate of more than 80 percent; the industry average was 75.5 percent, down from 77.3 percent in 2005. Denied boarding incidents increased to 1.01 per 10,000 passengers in 2006. The mishandled baggage rate for the industry increased to 6.5 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers in 2006. Customer complaints for nearly half the airlines in the study increased; seven saw less complaints; and Southwest Airlines maintained the lowest complaint rate in the industry.
Bowen says industry performance will be difficult to improve if current trends continue. “The stress in the airline system is across the board. Passengers, airline staff, airline corporations are as stretched as we have ever seen them. Seeing declines in industry performance isn’t surprising in this environment, and it will be difficult to change the trends we have seen.”
Hawaiian Airlines topped the AQR rankings with an on-time average of 93.8 percent and the best baggage handling rates in the industry (3.14 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers). Other airlines in the AQR Top-5 include Jet Blue, Air Tran, Frontier and Northwest.