The national Airline Quality Rating survey said overall performance by U.S. airlines improved for the fourth straight year and the latest score was the highest in the 22 years researchers at Purdue and Wichita State universities have tracked airline performance.
Sitting at the top of the list for 2011, just as they did in 2010, were AirTran, Hawaiian and JetBlue, the researchers said. Ten of 15 airlines showed improvement in their year-to-year scores.
The researchers said the airline industry improved in all four major categories, including on-time performance, baggage handling, involuntary denied boardings and customer complaints.
"The airlines are getting their act together and seizing control of the situations in which they must perform," said Brent Bowen, professor and head of Purdue's Department of Aviation Technology. "But with an increasing demand for air travel, they must be careful to keep things on track."
Bowen said despite the better scores, there is room for improvement with frequent flyers frequently complaining. Bowen blames poor employee-customer relations and the news media's penchant for jumping on stories about the rare instances of airline employee outbursts.
Among the positives, the survey found, was a nearly 30 percent drop in the rate at which travelers were involuntarily denied boarding. The most improved of the rated airlines was Frontier Airlines, moving up to No. 4 from No. 9, and Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance (92.8 percent).
On the downside, more than a third of customer complaints were for flight problems, such as unplanned schedule changes, delays and cancellations. JetBlue had the worst on-time rate (73.3 percent).
Seven airlines improved their on-time arrival performance, nudging the industry rate to 80 percent.
AirTran was the best at getting travelers' baggage to their destinations at the same time they arrived -- 1.63 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers, while American Eagle was the worst at 7.32 per 1,000.
"For more than a decade, the airlines have performed most efficiently when the system isn't stressed by high passenger volume and high numbers of airplanes in the air," Bowen said. "Every time there are more planes in the sky and more people flying, airline performance suffers."