Continental ranked first for long-haul flights -those over 500 miles - while TWA placed first for short flights.
Continental's strengths were on-time performance, speedy airport check-in and quality food and delivery, the survey found. TWA's were airport check-in process, availability and frequency of flights and seating comfort.
The annual survey was based on 6,520 flight evaluations from a national sample of frequent fliers who average 27 U.S. round trips each year. It was independently funded by J.D. Power and Associates and Frequent Flyer magazine.
In an era when planes are consistently running more than 70 percent full, the survey found that the single largest percentage of travelers - 26 percent - place on-time performance as their most important issue. Placing second was the swiftness of airport check-in, deemed important by 15 percent of the respondents.
"This widening gap in passenger satisfaction between high-ranking and marginal airlines indicates a greater need for improvement in both long- and short-haul segments," said Steve Cohen, manager of the airline practice at J.D. Power.
According to the study, Continental was followed by TWA and American Airlines in terms of long-haul satisfaction. The remaining major airlines fell below the industry average for passenger satisfaction.
In terms of short-haul performance, TWA was followed by Southwest Airlines, Continental, Delta, America West and US Airways. Again, the remaining major airlines fell below the industry average.
Last year, TWA placed first in long-haul satisfaction, followed by Continental, United, America West and American. In 1998, America West placed first in passenger satisfaction for short-haul trips, followed by Continental, TWA, Southwest and US Airways.
Perhaps reflecting the variance in the methods used to conduct such surveys, a recent study by two university teachers placed US Airways atop a list of airline quality. It was followed by Continental, American, Delta, Southwest, America West, TWA, Alaska, Northwest and United Airlines.
The study, published by Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University in Kansas, and Brent Bowen, director of the Aviation Institute at the University of Nebraska, used 15 criteria for ranking airline quality.
They included on-time performance, denied boardings, mishandled luggage and passenger complaints.
By GLEN JOHNSON