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Low-fare airlines have better service, survey says

WASHINGTON—Low-fare carriers led by JetBlue Airways delivered better service than most traditional airlines in 2004, according to an analysis released Monday.

Overall, airline service got worse, according to the annual Airline Quality Rating report, which ranked the 16 biggest U.S. carriers. The study found that fewer flights arrived on time, more ticketed passengers were denied boarding, more luggage was lost and more travelers registered complaints than in 2003.

And things could get worse.

"The potential for performance decline over the next year is high," said Dean Headley, a professor at Wichita State University who co-authored the report with Brent Bowen, director of the Aviation Institute at University of Nebraska at Omaha.

They fear a meltdown sometime soon caused by a combination of more passengers and fewer airline personnel.

"We're getting to a point where we could have a systemic crisis like we did in December," Bowen said, referring to delays, cancellations and baggage snarls that entangled more than 500,000 passengers.

"The entire system could go into chaos."

In 2004, low-fare carriers dominated the top third of the rankings when it came to service. Only one traditional carrier, United Airlines, which ranked fourth, made the top six. The rest, in rank order, were JetBlue, AirTran Airways, Southwest Airlines, America West and Alaska Airlines.

Northwest, American, Continental, ATA, Delta Air Lines and U.S. Airways took spots seven through 12, in that order, followed by four regional airlines.

AirTran, Atlantic Southeast, JetBlue and United improved service in 2004, the study found. The rankings are derived from Department of Transportation figures for delays, bumping, lost luggage and traveler complaints. ATA and Southwest held their spots. The remaining 10 did worse.

The Air Transport Association, a Washington-based industry trade group, said the report's findings were selective and incomplete. Also important, according to a statement on the organization's Web site, are increases in the number of flights and customer conveniences such as kiosks, e-ticketing, online reservations and other innovations.

"Ultimately, the value to the customer is derived from a variety of considerations much broader than the study's very selective findings would suggest," the association's Web statement said.

The study found that Atlantic Southeast Airlines, a Delta offshoot, improved the most, but still came in 16th, mainly due to bumping ticketed passengers.

US Airways, which fell from fifth to 12th between 2003 and 2004, declined by every measure. In a recent employee newsletter, the carrier said it was working to improve its operations, starting with getting its planes off the ground on time.

AirTran had the lowest lost-baggage rate—2.8 bags lost per 1,000 passengers. Southwest had the fewest passenger complaints. SkyWest was the leader in on-time performance.

US Airways generated the most complaints, American Eagle had the most departure delays and Atlantic Southeast had the highest lost-baggage rate—14.5 per 1,000 passengers. That's three times the industry average.

Problems decreased from 2000 to 2003, but worsened in 2004, the study's authors concluded.

They noted that the seven largest carriers cut their workforce by 12 percent last year, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The cutbacks left the industry ill-prepared when the number of passengers increased in 2004.

Passengers appear to be voting with their wallets.

Low-fare carriers now have a 25 percent market share, compared with less than 7 percent five years ago, Headley said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050404 AIRLINES

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