Airlines doing better

Airlines are slowly, steadily recovering from their meltdown five years ago, when, under the strain of near-record consumer travel demand, their performance tanked.

WASHINGTON — Airlines, led by low-cost carrier AirTran Airways, are doing a better job of getting passengers to their destinations on time, with their bags, and with fewer complaints, private researchers who have analyzed federal data on airline performance said Monday.

It was the second year in a row that AirTran topped the rankings of the nation's 15 largest airlines included in the report. Hawaiian Airlines and JetBlue Airways also repeated their performance from the previous year, ranking second and third, respectively.

The rankings are based on data airlines supply the Department of Transportation regarding lost bags, delayed flights, and bumpings from full planes, as well as consumer complaints made to the department.

Overall, the report shows flying is getting better even through passengers grappling with fare increases, canceled routes and a seemingly endless parade of new fees may not feel that way, said Dean Headley, a business professor at Wichita State University who has co-written the annual report for 22 years.

Airlines are slowly, steadily recovering from their meltdown five years ago. Industry performance for all four measurements was slightly better in 2011 compared with 2010.

“Airlines are finally catching up with what their promise is, which is getting you there on time 80 percent of the time with your bags,” Headley said.

“They realize that people are paying a lot more money, and the system is more complex than it was, and they have to do a better job,” he said. “To their credit, I think they are doing a better job.”

Southwest, which began serving Charleston more than a years ago, once again had the lowest consumer complaint rate, 0.32 complaints per 100,000 passengers.

The majority of complaints fell into four categories: flight problems such as unplanned schedule changes, delays and cancellations, 34.9 percent; baggage, 14.3 percent; customer service, 12.1 percent, and reservations, ticketing and boarding, 11.2 percent.