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Report shows improvement in airlines' performance; AirTran named best of 15 largest carriers

Airlines, led by low-cost carrier AirTran Airways, are doing a better job of getting passengers to their destinations on time, with their bags and with fewer complaints, private researchers who have analyzed federal data on airline performance said Monday.

It was the second year in a row that AirTran topped the rankings of the nation's 15 largest airlines included in the annual report. Hawaiian Airlines and JetBlue Airways also repeated their performances from the previous year, ranking second and third, respectively.

AirTran and JetBlue both serve Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

The rankings are based on data airlines supply the Department of Transportation regarding lost bags, delayed flights, bumpings from full planes and consumer complaints made to the department.

Overall, the report shows flying is getting better, even though passengers who are grappling with fare increases, canceled routes and a seemingly endless parade of new fees may not feel that way, said Dean Headley, a business professor at Wichita State University who has co-written the annual report for 22 years.

Airlines are slowly, steadily recovering from their meltdown five years ago, when, under the strain of near-record consumer travel demand, their performance tanked, he said. Industry performance for all four measurements was slightly better in 2011 compared with 2010.

"Airlines are finally catching up with what their promise is, which is getting you there on time 80 percent of the time with your bags," Headley said.

With higher fuel costs, airfares are trending up, though increases vary significantly depending on whether the passenger is flying between major airports or is heading to or from a small or medium-sized airport, Headley said. As airlines cut back service to smaller airports, the cost of air travel in small and medium cities is increasing, he said.

AirTran did the best job of not losing passengers' bags, and it performed well in each of the other categories, boosting its ranking, Headley said.

The overall rankings in order were: AirTran, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Frontier Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, US Airways, SkyWest Airlines, American Airlines, Continental Airlines, United Airlines, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, Mesa Airlines and American Eagle.

AirTran was acquired by Southwest Airlines Co. last year.

Hawaiian did the best job of arriving on time with an average of 92.8 percent, while JetBlue had the worst on-time performance, 73.3 percent. A flight is considered on time if it arrives within 15 minutes of when it was originally due.

Nearly half the 15 airlines improved their on-time arrival performance in 2011, and seven had an on-time arrival percentage above 80 percent -- Hawaiian, Southwest, AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta and Mesa. The average on-time performance for the industry was 80 percent last year, just a tad better than 2010's average of 79.8 percent.

JetBlue had the lowest rate of bumped passengers, 0.01 per 10,000 passengers.

Top-performer AirTran mishandled only 1.63 bags per 1,000 passengers. American Eagle had the worst baggage handling rate, 7.32 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. That was more than double the industry rate of 3.35.

Southwest once again had the lowest consumer complaint rate, 0.32 complaints per 100,000 passengers; United had the highest consumer complaint rate at 2.21.

Headley attributed United's high complaint rate to rough patches in the airline's merger with Continental. The airlines, which merged their reservation operations last month, now operate under the United name.

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