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Airline quality report shows improvement on customer complaints

A plane passes in front of a full moon over New York City February 17, 2011. REUTERS/Eric Thayer
A plane passes in front of a full moon over New York City February 17, 2011. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

(Reuters) - U.S. airlines received fewer complaints from passengers last year but did a worse job handling baggage, a study has shown.

The annual national Airline Quality Rating (AQR), which ranks airlines on several metrics based on U.S. Department of Transportation figures, also found that carriers had a lower bumped passenger rate but worse on-time performance in 2013 compared with 2012.

The annual study is conducted by researchers at Wichita State and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical universities.

Dean Headley, a marketing professor at Wichita State who wrote the report with Brent Bowen of Embry-Riddle, said the better showing on passenger complaints largely reflected an improvement at United Continental Holdings , which had the worst showing among carriers on that measure in 2012.

Among the 15 airlines included in the study, the rate of complaints filed against carriers fell to 1.13 per 100,000 passengers last year from 1.43 in 2012.

At United, the customer complaint rate improved to 2.14 per 100,000 passengers in 2013 from 4.24 the year before. The carrier has said technology changes made in 2012 as part of the integration process after the 2010 merger of United and Continental hurt service and led some customers to defect to competitors.

United has improved its performance in the past year, and UBS upgraded its rating on the carrier to "buy" from "neutral" on April 1, saying unit revenue, a key measure of performance, would pick up starting in the second quarter.

"There's a recuperation from the United Continental consolidation debacle," said Headley. The airline "really took a hit last year for 2012."

Headley said the overall mishandled baggage rate among airlines, which came to 3.21 per 1,000 passengers in 2013, compared with 3.07 the year before, moved in the wrong direction. "That bothers me because people are paying a lot of money" to check bags, Headley said.

The study found that the rates of passengers bumped because of overbooked planes improved to 0.89 per 10,000 people, compared with 0.97 in 2012. On-time arrivals for the airlines overall worsened to 78.4 percent last year, compared with 81.8 percent in 2012.

Rankings of individual airlines in the study will be released later on Monday.

(Reporting by Karen Jacobs in Atlanta, editing by David Evans)

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