The 2015 version of the annual Airline Quality Rating report painted an ugly picture of the state of customer service in the industry.
Compared to 2013, if you flew on a U.S. airline in 2014 you were more likely to get "bumped" to a later flight, more likely to arrive at least 15 minutes late when you finally got on a flight, more likely to have your checked baggage lost, and -- perhaps not surprisingly -- more likely to file a formal complaint with the Department of Transportation.
In short, airline performance deteriorated year over year across a wide range of customer service metrics. But those are just the averages. Three airlines bucked the trend and posted improved scores in the Airline Quality Rating report: Virgin America (NASDAQ:VA), Hawaiian Holdings (NASDAQ:HA), and Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK).
Virgin America: building on its lead
This was the third time that Virgin America was included in the AQR survey, after surpassing the minimum size threshold a few years ago. Each year, Virgin America has taken the top spot. This time, it improved its overall score from -0.32 to -0.30. (Smaller negative numbers represent better scores.)
Virgin America's on-time performance slipped to 81.5% last year from 82.1% in 2013. Moreover, involuntary denied boardings more than doubled year over year as the airline "bumped" more customers.
However, Virgin America made up for slipping in these areas by mishandling slightly fewer bags and decreasing its formal complaint rate by more than 10%. As a result, it increased its lead over the runner-up from 0.1 points in 2013 to 0.23 points last year.
Hawaiian Airlines: rising to second place
Hawaiian Airlines has been one of the top three-rated airlines every year but one since 2008. In 2014, it improved its score from -0.59 to -0.53, moving into the No. 2 spot in the rankings.
Hawaiian's on-time arrival percentage declined from 93.3% to 91.9% last year. (That still made it the most punctual airline in the industry by far.) However, the airline bumped fewer passengers, mishandled fewer bags, and received fewer formal complaints than it did in 2013. All in all, this represented another solid showing from Hawaiian.
Alaska keeps its streak alive
In 2014, Alaska Airlines improved its AQR composite score for the fifth straight year, going from -0.69 to -0.65. That's the longest active improvement streak.
Like Virgin America and Hawaiian Airlines, Alaska's on-time performance also dropped modestly, from 87.2% to 86.2%. It also bumped slightly more passengers off of their flights in 2014. However, it lost fewer bags and slightly reduced its customer complaint rate.
Alaska's overall performance left it in fifth place, but it was just 0.05 points shy of leapfrogging JetBlue Airways and Delta Air Lines to join Virgin America and Hawaiian Airlines in the top three. Moreover, its score of -0.65 is dramatically better than the industry average of -1.24.
Blame it on the weather?
One interesting thing to note about this year's rankings is that the only three carriers to post year-over-year improvements are all based on the West Coast (or Hawaii, in the case of Hawaiian Airlines). Severe winter storms hit the East Coast last year -- particularly in early January 2014 -- snarling travel and driving up delays, flight cancellations, and customer complaints.
That's why it's important to take the headline numbers with a grain of salt. While customer service deteriorated at most airlines last year, some of the problems should probably be attributed to unusually bad weather that tripped up airlines with big East Coast operations. If so, then most airlines' scores should improve in next year's Airline Quality Rating report.