Spirit Isn’t America’s Worst Airline Anymore

U.S. airlines are getting better. In fact, according to the latest quality rating, U.S. airlines as a group posted their highest quality numbers in the 29 years that the ratings have been reported.

Of the nine airlines included in the report, Delta Air Lines posted the best score, replacing Alaska Airlines, which topped last year’s list. At the bottom of the rankings, Frontier Airlines replaced Spirit Airlines, which had locked up last place for all three years it had been included in the rankings.

The 2019 Airline Quality Rating is compiled by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University from monthly data collected in 2018 by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The rating is a weighted average of 15 criteria that airline industry experts believe consumers would rate as important in judging airline quality. The criteria include on-time performance (a positive number), involuntary denied boardings, mishandled baggage and a dozen items collected under the heading of customer complaints. These 12 items, all of which are negative, include flight problems, oversales and customer service.

The overall 2018 score for the nine airlines was −0.66, an improvement from the prior year’s industry score of −0.79. No airline has ever posted a positive score and, as we’ve noted, this year’s industry total is the best ever. U.S. travelers are not easy to please, it seems.

Overall, on-time performance declined year over year in 2018, from 80.2% to 79.6%. Mishandled baggage performance improved from 2.46 in 2017 to 2.43 per 1,000 passengers, and customer complaints declined from 1.35 to 1.04 per 100,000 passengers. The 23% drop in customer complaints last year suggests to the researchers that airlines are indeed paying attention to services that the flying public values.

Top-rated Delta Air Lines improved its on-time percentage by just 0.3 percentage points last year, and its score for mishandled baggage was essentially flat. Denied boardings fell to zero, and the customer complaint score improved from 0.92 per 100,000 passengers to 0.65. The airline’s 2018 total score was −0.36.

JetBlue Airways ranked second last year with a total score of −0.48. On-time performance was slightly worse, while denied boardings improved from 0.41 per 10,000 passengers to just 0.01 last year. JetBlue’s mishandled baggage rate was second-best in the industry.

Third-ranked Southwest Airlines had a total 2018 score of −0.62, thanks to improved on-time performance and a lower rate of denied boardings. The mishandled baggage score was slightly worse, however.

Ranked fourth, Alaska Airlines tumbled from the top position it had held in the two previous years. The airline’s on-time performance was worse, its rate of mishandled baggage was higher and the overall rate of complaints did not change year over year.

In fifth place, Hawaiian Airlines posted 2018’s best on-time performance of 89.3%, an improvement of more than a full percentage point year over year. Denied boardings declined to just 0.01 per 10,000 passengers, but mishandled baggage and more customer complaints weighed on the airline’s overall performance score of −0.65.

Sixth-ranked United Airlines posted an overall score of −0.72 in 2018. Fewer denied boardings and a lower rate of customer complaints outweighed lower on-time performance and more mishandled baggage.

Spirit Airlines improved more than any other carrier last year. On-time performance rose from 77.1% in 2017 to 81.1%. Denied boarding scores improved significantly, and the customer complaint score was cut in half. Spirit’s overall score was −1.00 in 2018.

Coming in eighth was American Airlines with an overall score of −1.10, worse than its −1.03 score in the prior year. On-time performance and baggage handling scored worse than in 2017, while denied boardings and complaints improved.

Dead last in the rankings for 2018, Frontier Airlines posted worse on-time performance, dropping from 78.3% in 2017 to 69.4%, and more frequent denied boardings. Baggage handling improved slightly, but customer complaints overall rose. The year-over-year decline was the worst among all airlines in the study.