Airline Quality Rating Holiday Travel Forecast

Travelers on U.S. airlines have reason to be concerned this holiday travel season. Fewer seats and traditionally high passenger volumes are a reality for holiday travel. Ticket prices and overall costs also will be higher. While overall airline performance quality has improved each year since 2007, the travel experience has become more stressful and uncertain, especially around the end-of-the-year holidays.

"During the past several years, the holiday travel period has been a struggle for airline passengers,” said Dean Headley, Airline Quality Rating co-author and marketing professor at Wichita State University. “December has the lowest overall quality score of any month. The best bet for the consumer is to travel as early before the actual holiday or as late as possible afterward, and always leave room for schedule changes."

The industry overall

Looking back, 2010 was a good year for airline performance, said Headley. Data for the first six months of 2011 indicate that improvement trends continued for the first quarter, but are mixed for the second quarter.

"We have a mixed bag of data that show performance scores are getting better,” said Headley. “We are settling in to a new reduced capacity system that challenges travelers to be more savvy. With strong demand for fewer seats, it also presents an opportunity for the airlines to charge more for a ticket."

Headley points out that if the 2011 data trends continue improving in the last quarter of the year, "holiday travel could actually be better than in past years."

"If you look at this improvement trend with month-over-month performance scores getting better, even the more difficult winter months hold hope for a better travel experience,” said Headley. “Air travel will cost more, but if you can find a seat, it may be operating better."

In 2010, best-performing airlines in each of the AQR categories were Hawaiian, Jet Blue, Air Tran and Southwest. Hawaiian was best in on-time performance. Jet Blue was best in avoiding denied boardings. Air Tran was best in baggage handling. Southwest had the lowest rate of customer complaints.

The worst performing airlines in each of the AQR categories were Comair, American Eagle and United. Comair had the worst on-time performance. American Eagle had the worst rate of denied boardings. American Eagle also had the highest rate of mishandled baggage. Delta had the highest rate of customer complaints.

What's ahead?

Airline acquisitions and mergers continue to add new dynamics to the industry and shrink consumer choice options. The most recent events with industry-changing potential have been the combining of United and Continential airlines and the combining of Southwest and AirTran. The impact of these new mega-carriers is yet unknown. If you look at past AQR data, you will find that combining two very large airlines does not necessarily result in improved performance.

"Look back to the Delta / Northwest and U.S. Air / America West mergers, and you will find that these mergers brought performance problems for the new carriers," said Headley.

Airline fees are still there, so consumers beware. Unbundled services available a la carte are the new reality.
"Tickets may appear to be reasonable to slightly higher, but when the fees hit you, you truly feel that the overall cost of travel has gone up,” said Headley. “Maybe a year ago the average price was $350, but with $75 in fees, that ticket seems noticeably more expensive. At some point, consumers will simply say that the holiday visit is not worth the price and the hassle."

The national Airline Quality Rating for 2012 (covering the performance results of 2011) will be released on Monday, April 2, 2012, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.