Airline performance soars! But that's not saying much

Domestic airlines have cleaned up their acts a little, a study of 17 carriers finds. Compared to 2007, in 2008 they showed improvements in late arrivals, overbooked passengers, and complaints. Hurray! Huzzah!

That means that if you fly nowadays, you will undoubtedly have an easier time of it than you did in 2007. Which means you're getting slightly more for your money.

But wait. As you might have guessed, there's a little sarcasm in there. I wouldn't pull a muscle trying to pat the airlines on the back. That's because those numbers were bound to go down: There are fewer flights flying. The recession has caused airlines to cancel routes and mothball jets. So of course passenger misery has declined. It had to (or so you'd hope), because the airlines aren't burdened with as much traffic.

The numbers don't just reflect fewer total problems. They indeed show a reduction in problems per 100,000 passengers: 1.42 in '07 compared to 1.15 last year. The least complained-about carrier? Southwest, with a mere 0.25 issues per 100,000 trips. The most bitched-about? U.S. Airways, at 2.25 (although, to be fair, the airline did win the "most improved" award, which is what my first grade teacher typically gave to the basket case).

There's another reason I wouldn't plan the parade quite yet. Yes, on-time performance was indeed 3% better than the year before. But all the same, nearly a quarter of all flights was still late. Only three airlines arrived on time for more than 80% of flights (and they were Southwest again, U.S. Airways again, and Hawaiian). Which airline has the worst on-time record? American Airlines, which is punctual for merely 69.8% of its chances to fly right.

In terms of overall quality, which combines the various statistics to see which airline offers the best overall experience, the top three airlines weren't even legacy carriers: Hawaiian was first, followed by AirTran (you've come a long way from ValuJet, baby) with JetBlue taking the bronze.

We already knew that the airlines were losing less baggage, too, because that fact was clarified a month ago. Both the decrease in flights and the increase in passengers refusing to pay checked bag fees accounted for the so-called improvement. If customers don't entrust their luggage to you, you can't lose it.

There's also this: 2007 was the worst record for airlines in about a decade. Don't see the 2008 figures as evidence of stellar service. See it as the bounce from rock bottom.
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