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The No. 1 airline in America for performance

Believe it or not, airline quality is better than ever, according to an annual ranking. Read More...

Maybe the skies are getting a little friendlier.

Last year, major airlines in America received the best score ever in the 29-year history of an annual study that tracks consumer complaints, on-time performance and mishaps like mishandled baggage and passengers getting bumped off oversold flights.

The Airline Quality Rating awarded its best overall score ever and noted that industry scores have been improving each year since 2015.

The research found:

• There were 8,865 consumer complaints filed last year with the U.S. Department of Transportation, a 23% decrease from 11,570 complaints filed in 2017.

• Involuntary denied boardings — also known as being bumped from a flight — last year shrank to .14 per 10,000 passengers, compared to .34 per 10,000 passengers in 2017.

• Baggage mix-ups decreased to 2.43 per 1,000 passengers from 2.46 in 2017.

• However, on-time arrivals eked downward, slipping to 79.6% in 2018 compared to 80.2% the year before.

“Improvement in industry performance in three of four areas tracked in the ratings is a positive sign for consumers and airlines alike,” wrote the study authors, Dr. Brent Bowen, a professor and former dean at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s College of Aviation, and Dr. Dean Headley, an emeritus professor at Wichita State University.

The Airline Quality Rating passed the airline industry as a whole with flying colors But some carriers fared better than others.

Delta Airlines DAL, -1.20%  flew to the top of the nine ranked airline companies. The airline’s on-time performance edged up, its mishandled baggage rate was essentially the same and customer complaints dropped, according to the study. It placed second in the previous ranking behind Alaska Airlines ALK, -1.35% which sunk to fourth in the most recent study.

Frontier Airlines came in last. Its on-time performance was 69% in 2018, compared to 78% in 2017. Its denied boarding climbed, as did its consumer complaint rate even while mishandled baggage became less frequent. A request for comment to the Denver, Colo.-based airline offering “low fares done right” was not immediately returned.

Smoother performance is coinciding with high-altitude airline revenues. Revenue increased from $155 billion to $222 billion between 2009 and 2017, according to a report from Deloitte.

Still, it’s not as if air travel grousing has gone away. Stories about misdaventures in flying sprout up routinely, like a mother and child who were forced off a plane allegedly because of their skin condition or a doctor who was dragged down the aisle of an overbooked flight.

Indeed, the findings arrive with the airlines industry in the news for the wrong reasons.

Weeks ago, an Ethiopian Airlines crash killed all 157 people on a flight using a Boeing 737 Max 8. That was the same aircraft that crashed five months earlier and killed all 189 people in a Lion Airlines flight. Dennis Muilenburg, CEO of Boeing BA, -1.50% has apologized for the crashes and pledged to have the aircraft’s software fixed.

Though airline industry scores have been continuously improving in the past several years, Headley, the report’s co-author, said David Dao’s 2017 dragging off a United UAL, -0.72%   flight was a key moment. “People became aware it happened and could happen to them. … It made a dramatic improvement,” he said. (A United spokeswoman called the incident a “defining moment” that all of the company’s employees could learn from; the airline later reached an undisclosed settlement with Dao.)

While complaints to the Department of Transportation were down, that doesn’t necessarily mean passenger satisfaction was up, Headley noted. It could be that fed up consumers weren’t even bothering to file complaints in the first place, he said. The carriers didn’t share the number of complaints filed directly with them, he noted.

Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, a passenger advocacy group,shrugged off the positive-sounding findings. “This is a survey by and for the airline industry and does not represent a true consumer survey,” he told MarketWatch. The survey didn’t get into passenger issues like “price and value for the money, seating and passenger space, boarding, food, frequent flyer programs, reliability, safety, reservation services or any real service comparisons,” he said. The study also only looked at domestic air travel, Hudson said.

Headley defended the results, which, he noted, wasn’t a survey but an analysis of publicly-available facts. Besides, data on punctuality, performance and complaints all have a “decidedly consumer perspective,” he said.

Shares of Delta have been up 15.49% so far this year compared to a 12.76% increase for the Dow Jones Industrial DJIA, -0.63%  and a 15.25% increase for the S&P 500 SPX, -0.46%

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