Mile-High Crabapples: Can We Quantify the Airline Industry's Incompetence?

NEW YORK (MainStreet)—Before boarding a trans-Atlantic flight recently, I held reasonable expectations for the eight-hour trip. I'd enjoy an ancient episode of a CBS comedy now in its 3,000th season, I'd nurse a glass of wine and I'd arrive jetlagged but in one piece (and probably on time).

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Seeing as the commercial airline industry has had 99 years to get things right, reliability seems like a very low bar, indeed.

The funny thing about reliability, though, is that it's as much about performance metrics as it is about consumer perception. Even if Airline X averages 79% on-time arrivals (a number the U.S. Department of Transportation publishes each month for all airlines) that factoid doesn't matter much to a disgruntled passenger who just had a terrible flight.

The annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR) for 2013, which was just released last month, offers a middle ground that marries metrics with anecdotal evidence by evaluating on-time boarding, denied boarding, mishandled baggage and 12 subsets of customer complaints to devise a single number that stands for the prior year's performance. 2012 showed a decline in "overall performance quality" over 2011, which is tied, unsurprisingly, to an increase in customer complaints: 1.43 per 100,000 passengers in 2012 over 1.19 per 100,000 passengers in 2011.

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Despite those trends, other indices see customer perceptions improving. The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), an independent economic indicator that looks at a range of industries, also tracks these sorts of figures for airlines. ACSI's report on the airline industry for 2013 is due out at the beginning of next month, but last year showed a 3.1% boost to 67 out of 100 in customer satisfaction.