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Alaska Airlines takes top spot in latest airline quality rankings

FG/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Alaska Airlines edged out Delta Air Lines for the top spot in a new airline quality report from two universities. Overall airline performance improved in 2017, as well, according to the study.

The Airline Quality Rating report, a joint project between Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Wichita State Universities, measured four publicly available metrics: on-time performance, involuntary denied boardings, mishandled bags and customer complaints.

Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance in 2017 -- 88 percent of flights operated within 15 minutes of the scheduled time -- and Virgin America performed the worst at 70 percent.

On-time performance for the whole industry in 2017 was 80.2 percent, down 1.2 percent from 2016.

Though this particular area was worse, the authors of the study told reporters on Monday that the total airline quality score for 2017, across the entire industry, is the best ever; three of the four metrics measured by the report have improved since 2016.

"The best-ever industry AQR score for 2017 is largely due to improvements in the rate of involuntary denied boardings and the rate of mishandled bags," said Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University. "Consumers have demanded this, and the industry listened and improved."

A year after an infamous incident involving airport police dragging a bloodied passenger off a United Airlines flight in Chicago, nine of the 12 largest U.S. air carriers improved their rates of involuntary denied boardings. The industry overall reported the lowest such rate since 1991.

Delta led the way in 2017 with 0.05 denied boardings per 10,000 customers. Spirit reported the worst rate with 0.82 per 10,000 customers.

However, Spirit had the best baggage handling rate, with only 1.61 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. ExpressJet, an airline that operates as American Eagle, United Express or Delta Connection, had the worst rate with 3.88 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers.

Southwest Airlines had the lowest rate of customer complaints of all airlines, 0.47 complaints per 100,000 passengers. Spirit had the highest complaints with 5.59 per 100,000 passengers.

Social media complaints have placed pressure on airlines to respond to issues in real time and change their culture of customer service, one study researcher said.

"2017 was a rough year for the airlines in the public’s eye," said Brent Bowen, professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "But the results of the study show that they are making the effort – even if it may seem incremental to the traveling public, the numbers are there."

This is how the 12 largest airlines were ranked for calendar year 2017. Each of their rankings for 2016 are in parentheses:
1. Alaska (1)
2. Delta (2)
3. JetBlue (4)
4. Hawaiian (5)
5. Southwest (6)
6. SkyWest (7)
7. Virgin America (3)
8. United (8)
9. American (9)
10. ExpressJet (10)
11. Frontier (12)
12. Spirit (11)

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