It's not in your head: Airline performance is declining

Many air travelers in the U.S. will tell you that flying domestically these days can be appalling. Indeed, complaints to the U.S. Department of Transportation regarding the airlines have been rising steadily over the past five years.

But you don't have to take their word for it.

According to the 25th annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR) study released on Monday, commercial airlines "collectively declined" when it came to four key factors: On-time performance, involuntary denied boardings, mishandled baggage and customer complaints.

The AQR is a joint research project funded by Wichita State University in Kansas and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Prescott, Arizona campus.

The study noted that, despite their best year ever in 2013 when it came to overall performance, just three of the 12 U.S. airlines evaluated improved their rankings last year.

Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University, says the overall decline in airline performance shows that concerns in recent years, that the recent rounds of airline mergers might negatively affect consumers, have been justified.

"Bigger isn't always better, and the downturn in performance suggests that customer perceptions of poor outcomes are warranted," he said in a press statement..

"Airline mergers and consolidations are taking a systemic toll that is bad for consumers," added Brent Bowen, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Arizona campus. "Performance by the airlines is slipping while they claimed this would make them better."

Here is the AQR's ranking of the nation's top 12 airlines, with their 2013 rankings in parentheses:

  1. Virgin America (1)
  2. Hawaiian (3)
  3. Delta (4)
  4. JetBlue (2)
  5. Alaska (5)
  6. Southwest (8) (includes AirTran)
  7. American (9) (includes USAirways)
  8. Frontier (11)
  9. United (12) (includes Continental)
  10. SkyWest (14)
  11. ExpressJet (13)
  12. Envoy/ American Eagle (15)

The researchers pointed to Delta, the one airline to improve its overall AQR for last year, as a sign of hope for the industry.

"Delta is an excellent example of a merger that declined in performance and systematically has clawed its way back to a new high level of quality performance," said Bowen. "This shows that if an airline commits to improving their AQR rating, they can do it."

One of the major challenges for the airline industry, according to the researchers, is keeping up with growing consumer demand by investing in infrastructure and better services for their customers.

"With AQR performance factors in a state of overall decline, it is easy to understand why passengers and many of the airline employees they encounter are not happy and are significantly frustrated," Bowen added.

"With the high profits being realized by airlines, it is evident they are not investing in customer service and restoring employee concessions given up during the economic decline."