Why the 2018 Airline Quality Rating is useless

The 2018 Airline Quality Rating is useless. Research released yesterday by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Wichita State University doesn’t help real airline passengers.

The granddaddy of airline ratings is 28 years old but has outlived its utility. It’s little more than a puff piece that allows airlines to claim they’re improving service.

How the Airline Quality Rating gets its information

The Airline Quality Rating (AQR) academics take four categories from the monthly Department of Transportation (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Reports — on-time performance, denied boardings, mishandled bags, and complaint rates — apply a multiplier to each one and produce a list that ranks U.S. airlines.

Coincidentally, the researchers revealed their ratings exactly one year from the date that airport police dragged Dr. Dao off the United flight from Chicago to Louisville.

Of course, that kind of horrendous passenger service isn’t measured by this rating system.

Why the Airline Quality Rating is useless

Before I get to the ratings, let’s look at the problems with the airline quality rating. It is more of an advertising gimmick for the airlines than a useful tool for consumers. Let me count the ways.

✓ Most consumers don’t have much choice when it comes to travel. They are limited to airlines that serve their city. It is a rare city that has service from four or more airlines.

✓ Airline preferences are based on price more than any other factor. Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant are garnering additional passengers and their AQR, service and on-time ratings are poor.

✓ Southwest is the only airline that provides truth in advertising and no change/cancellation fees. This AQR does not take any of that into consideration. However, Southwest Airlines customers are fiercely loyal.

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✓ When frequent-flier considerations are mixed in, the AQR rating makes even less difference. Passengers fly with the airline where they get the most miles — on airlines that serve their hometown and destinations. About 70 percent of fliers only fly once a year. The ranking is not important to them.

✓ The worse and more costly the airlines’ checked baggage service is, the fewer bags get checked per 1,000 passengers, hence the mishandled baggage rate actually improves when fewer bags are checked.

✓ The denied boarding rates only take into consideration involuntary denied boarding statistics. The voluntary stats tell the real story about customer service. Delta has the highest number of voluntary bumping in the industry.

✓ Complaint rates are based on those submitted to DOT. Airlines can get about 10 times as many complaints.

And the winners are …

Here’s the full list:

1 Alaska Airlines
2 Delta Air Lines
3 JetBlue
4 Hawaiian Airlines
5 Southwest Airlines
6 SkyWest Airlines
7 Virgin America
8 United Airlines
9 American Airlines
10 ExpressJet
11 Frontier Airlines
12 Spirit Airlines

The overall industry AQR score improved for 2017. Taking all 12 rated airlines together, the AQR score for the industry improved from a level of -0.95 in 2016 to -0.79 in 2017. The 2017 score is the best AQR score in the 27-year history of the rating. The industry AQR score has improved each year for the past three years (2015, 2016, 2017). Improved performance was seen in three of the four areas tracked.

How to make the Airline Quality Rating better

My consumer advocacy organization, Travelers United, met with the team that puts the AQR together and will be exchanging ideas about how to make a more helpful rating system for passengers that focuses on customer service, transparent pricing, personal space on planes, WiFi connections, and simplified systems of airfares and ancillary fees.

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Once upon a time, the airline quality rating made a difference. Back then, almost 20 airlines crisscrossing the country and the oceans. Everyone in the country had some choices about what airlines they would use to take a vacation or business trip.

Unfortunately, passenger choice has been reduced to one to three airlines for most American fliers. There just is not the amount of competition that once provided passengers with plenty of choices. And that’s why this year’s Airline Quality Rating is useless.

Charlie Leocha

Charlie Leocha is the founder of Travelers United, a Washington, DC, advocacy group. He also serves on the DOT Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection.

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