Is the government letting airlines off easy? Let’s do the math

The Transportation Department’s latest high-profile fine goes against Comair for violating denied-boarding rules. It’s a big ticket: $275,000, which, while significantly less than the record fine against Spirit Airlines late last year, could be the largest enforcement action for bad bumping practices.

According to the government, an investigation of Comair revealed numerous cases in which the airline failed to solicit volunteers to leave overbooked flights and provide passengers with the appropriate denied boarding compensation.

The DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office also found that Comair had filed inaccurate reports with DOT on the number of passengers involuntarily denied boarding.

Bad Comair!

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A closer look at the best and worst airlines of 2007

Here’s an important footnote to the airline industry’s year from hell. A closer look at the Transportation Department’s 2007 report card shows some carriers were likelier to lose your luggage, deny you boarding, get you to your destination late and provoke a written complaint. And some airlines were above it all.

Here’s a birds-eye view of the DOT’s report, by category. I’ve broken it down into in an easy-to-understand blog posting so that you can sort the winners from the sinners and make a more informed booking decision.

Which airline is likeliest to lose my luggage?

No surprises here. The Hawaiian carriers outperformed everyone else. Low fare carriers did better than legacy airlines. And regional carriers continued their underperforming streak.

Mishandled baggage (reports per 1,000 passengers)

Best

1. Hawaiian Airlines (3.41)
2. Aloha Airlines (3.88)
3. AirTran Airways (4.06)
4. Northwest Airlines (5.01)
5. JetBlue Airways (5.23)

Worst

1. American Eagle (13.55)
2. Comair (11.40)
3. Atlantic Southeast (11.24)
4. Skywest (10.87)
5. Mesa Airlines (10.46)

The industry average for mishandled baggage was 7.03, compared with 6.73 in 2006. Two years ago, the top performer was Hawaiian (3.14) and the airline with the worst record was Atlantic Southeast (17.37).

Which airline will oversell its flight and bump me?

Among the best performers, there were no surprises except one: United Airlines. Legacy carriers routinely overbook their flights and then deny passengers boarding. But United seems to have gotten its act together. Delta, on the other hand, does not. It joined the bottom-feeding regional carriers.

Involuntary denied boardings per 10,000 passengers.

Best

1. JetBlue Airways (.02)
2. AirTran Airways (.15)
3. Hawaiian Airlines (.17)
4. Aloha (.29)
5. United (.71)

Worst

1. Atlantic Southeast (4.50)
2. Comair (3.15)
3. Delta Air Lines (2.47)
4. Skywest (1.69)
5. Mesa Airlines (1.54)

The industry average last year was 1.12 involuntary denied boardings per 10,000 passengers, compared with 1 in 2006. JetBlue was the best performer in 2006, with .07 involuntary denied boardings, and Atlantic Southeast lost in the category, with 4.47 IDBs per 10k passengers.

Which airline am I most likely to complain about?

The legacy airlines were clear winners – I mean, losers – in the complaints category. If you were flying internationally, British Airways led by a wide margin.

Domestic

1. US Airways (1,828)
2. American Airlines (1,617)
3. United Airlines (1,540)
4. Delta Air Lines (1,325)
5. Northwest Airlines (768)

International

1. British Airways (285)
2. Alitalia (173)
3. Air France (152)
4. Lufthansa (84)
5. Iberia (72)

Which online agencies am I most likely to complain about?

This is a relatively new category for the DOT report card. I would expect next year’s numbers to be higher, now that passengers are aware they can gripe about their online travel agency, too.

1. Orbitz (45)
2. Travelocity (35)
3. Expedia (30)
4. Cheaptickets (22)
5. Cheapoair/Priceline (tie) (16)

Which airline runs on time?

Again, the Hawaiian carriers and low-fare airlines dominated, with a surprise appearance by Delta. Rounding out the bottom are two legacy carriers and the usual suspects — regional carriers.

Overall percentage of reported flight operations arriving on time

Best

1. Hawaiian (93.3)
2. Aloha (92.2)
3. Southwest (80.1)
4. Frontier (77.6)
5. Delta (76.9)

Worst

1. Atlantic Southeast (64.7)
2. Comair (67.9)
3. US Airways (68.7)
4. American (68.7)
5. American Eagle (69.1)

The industry average for 2007 was 73.4 percent, well below the historical average (over the last 20 years) of 78.3 percent.

What to make of these numbers?

If you want a quality flying experience in the lower 48, go for a low-fare carrier. If you’re into pain, try a legacy carrier or better yet, a regional airline.