Low-cost airlines rate high in service

April 05, 2005|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Low-cost carriers such as Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways have been far outpacing their established, traditional rivals in growth in recent years. Now they're also taking increasingly better care of passengers, a new airline quality rating shows.

JetBlue, the New York-based low-fare carrier that offers service from Washington Dulles International Airport, rated first in overall quality for the second consecutive year, according to the report released yesterday by researchers at the University of Nebraska's Aviation Institute and the Wichita State University W. Frank Barton School of Business.

Baltimore-Washington International Airport's top two airlines, Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways, ranked 3rd and 2nd, respectively. It was a significant jump for AirTran, which ranked 8th last year.

Five of the top six airlines were low-cost carriers, something that travel experts said might have something to do with their generally healthier financial footing and better employee morale. United Airlines, in fourth place, was the highest-ranked traditional or "legacy" carrier.

"It's not really a surprise at all," said Terry Trippler, chief executive of farefacts.com, a buyers' guide to low-fare airlines. "You work for a low-cost carrier, and you come to work every day and talk about where you're flying next, all the new airplanes you're getting and how many people are being hired. You're excited to go to work, you really give a damn and it rubs off on passengers. If you work for a financially strapped legacy carrier you may be focusing on if you have a job tomorrow."

The ratings have been released each year since 1991. They use data reported by airlines to the U.S. Department of Transportation on lost baggage, on-time performance and complaints about things such as flight problems, overbooking, reservations, fares and refunds. Sixteen airlines with at least 1 percent of domestic passenger volume were rated.

Several airline-quality reports are released each year from various sources, but the authors say theirs is the most objective because it relies on government data rather than random customer surveys. Travel experts such as Trippler caution that there are factors such as weather that are beyond an airline's control.

"Your best way to rank airlines is: How did they treat you the last time you flew them?" Trippler said.

The Airline Quality Rating shows that:

The overall industry score was lower in 2004 than in 2003.

On-time arrivals fell to 78.3 percent in 2004 vs. 82 percent in 2003, involuntary denied boardings per 10,000 passengers increased to 0.87 from 0.86, mishandled baggage complaints per 1,000 passengers increased to 4.83 from 4.00, and consumer complaints by 100,000 passengers went up to 0.76 in 2004 from 0.67 the year before.

Ten of the 14 airlines that were rated in both 2004 and 2003 showed declines in their overall scores.

JetBlue bumped the fewest passengers -just 0.01 per 10,000 passengers in 2004 - while Southwest had the lowest incidence of customer complaints at 0.18 per 100,000 passengers. AirTran was the best baggage handler with 2.82 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers.

Brent D. Bowen, director of the Nebraska Aviation Institute and a report author, said the ratings reflect the shift in the airline market.

"The way the rankings break out shows a continuation of just how popular low-fare carriers have become," he said. "The last few years of ranking have marked the growth of airlines like JetBlue and Southwest."

Low-cost carriers have grown from a 5 percent to 7 percent market share five years ago to more than a quarter of the market now. Many have sprung up, or vastly expanded, since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent struggles by the legacy airlines to fully recover.

Judy Graham-Weaver, a spokeswoman for AirTran, agreed that higher morale among workers at low-cost carriers probably contributes to better service. She also said that low ticket prices allow passengers to fly more places they want to go.

"Happier passengers and happier crew members make for a good formula," she said.

Specifically at AirTran, she said improvements have come from at least two systems that streamlined baggage handling and allowed workers to make decisions on the spot to quickly resolve problems.

The low-fare airlines' impact can be seen at BWI, where Southwest now dominates with nearly half of the market. Next month, the airport plans to open a new terminal for Southwest that BWI officials say will improve customer service and enable the Dallas-based low-cost leader to continue growing there.

AirTran, which has grown into BWI's second-biggest carrier with 8.75 percent of the market, also expects to add flights this year.

Jonathan Dean, BWI spokesman, said the ratings show that the airport is employing the correct strategy by helping low-cost airlines grow.

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