(Reuters) - Virgin America had the highest performance ranking among 15 U.S. airlines in 2013 in an annual study as the industry's overall quality improved, researchers said on Monday.
The national Airline Quality Rating, which ranks airlines in four categories based on U.S. Department of Transportation figures, found that carriers overall received fewer complaints from passengers and had a lower bumped passenger rate in 2013, compared with 2012. But on-time performance and mishandled baggage rates worsened.
Researchers at Wichita State and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical universities who conducted the study said airlines delivered their best performance in 2013 in the 23-year history of the quality rating. The 2013 study rated 15 airlines.
Still, the researchers said airlines can do more to improve customer satisfaction.
Because airlines are solving operational issues and improving in aspects studied by the Airline Quality Rating, "it is time to begin a new focus on serving travelers and expanding customer service," Brent Bowen, dean of the Embry-Riddle campus in Prescott, Arizona, said in a statement.
In the individual rankings for 2013, JetBlue Airways (JBLU.O) was second, Hawaiian (HA.O) third, Delta Air Lines (DAL.N) fourth and Alaska Airlines (ALK.N) fifth. JetBlue and Delta kept their same rating from the prior year, while Hawaiian and Alaska moved up in the rankings.
Among other airlines ranked, United Continental Holdings (UAL.N) improved to 12th in 2013 from 14th the year before. American Airlines (AAL.O) improved to ninth place from 10th in 2012, and its merger partner US Airways ranked seventh, up from ninth the prior year.
Southwest Airlines (LUV.N) was ranked eighth, the same as in 2012. But its AirTran unit fell to 10th from third as performance worsened in three of the four categories studied.
The study found that the rate of complaints filed against carriers as a whole fell to 1.13 per 100,000 passengers last year from 1.43 per 100,000 in 2012.
Dean Headley, a marketing professor at Wichita State who wrote the report with Bowen, said the better showing on passenger complaints largely reflected an improvement at United, which had the worst showing among carriers on that measure in 2012.
United's customer complaint rate improved to 2.14 per 100,000 passengers in 2013 from 4.24 the year before. The carrier has said technology changes made in 2012 as part of the integration process after the 2010 merger of United and Continental hurt service and led some customers to defect to competitors.
United has improved its performance in the past year, and UBS upgraded its rating on the carrier's stock to "buy" from "neutral" on April 1, saying unit revenue, a key measure of performance, would pick up starting in the second quarter.
"There's a recuperation from the United Continental consolidation debacle," said Headley. The airline "really took a hit last year for 2012."
Among other measures noted in the study, the overall mishandled baggage rate among airlines came to 3.21 per 1,000 passengers in 2013, compared with 3.07 the year before. The rate of passengers bumped because of overbooked planes improved to 0.89 per 10,000 people, compared with 0.97 in 2012. On-time arrivals for the airlines overall worsened to 78.4 percent last year, compared with 81.8 percent in 2012.
Reporting by Karen Jacobs in Atlanta; Editing by David Evans and Jonathan Oatis