Northwest again ranked fourth among major carriers, but owner Delta sank to 12th.
Two-year-old Jackson Ray of Washburn, Wis., hitched a ride on his mother Julie Buckles’ luggage at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for a trip to Washington, D.C., in November. They were following his dad, Charly Ray, and his sister, Caroline, 5, also getting a ride.
Flying was a bit less of a hassle last year, especially on Northwest Airlines.
After a worst-ever industry performance in 2007, the nation's leading airlines improved for the first time in five years in 2008, according to an annual study of airline performance released Monday.
Northwest ranked fourth again, behind Hawaiian, AirTran and JetBlue, but it improved in every category, including customer service. Delta Air Lines -- which acquired Northwest in the fall but still operates it as a separate subsidiary -- fell from 10th in 2007 to 12th last year.
"If you were at Delta and you're looking at how we're going to bring these two airlines together and what policies or procedures or attitudes to adopt, you'd have to say 'Northwest is doing better than we are,'" said Dean Headley, co-author of the Airline Quality Rating and an associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University.
Northwest was one of a few airlines to improve in all four areas: customer service complaints, mishandled baggage, on-time arrival and denied boardings, which often are bumpings caused by overbooking. Delta improved in two areas, mishandled bags and denied boardings, and had minuscule change in the other categories.
Why is Northwest doing so well? Headley recalled that TWA was doing great just before American Airlines absorbed it in 2001.
"When employees know that their long-term identity may very well disappear or be messed with, they say one of two things: 'Well, I don't care anymore. I'm going to be a Delta guy,'" he said. "Or else they're going to say, 'By golly, I'm going to take this airline out as good as it can go.'"
Delta spokesman Anthony Black said there is give and take between the two airlines as they continue to merge operations. "What you continually hear from us is taking the best of both airlines, whether it's customer service, whether it's operations, whether it's some other performance," he said. "So if there are things from a performance standpoint that they're doing better, then we'll look to do that."
The researchers said the overall improvement -- all four ratings were up industry wide -- isn't a surprise on the heels of such a bad year in 2007. And while performance was up, high fuel costs and a poor economy prompted many airlines to add fees, raise ticket prices and reduce schedules.
The aviation system suffered close to a meltdown in 2007, as domestic carriers recorded 770 million passengers -- the busiest year for air travel since before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Aviation experts said the air transport system had reached capacity. There were 741 million passengers in 2008.
"A simpler system always works better," said Headley. "When the system gets taxed, it just doesn't work as well."
The study, compiled annually since 1991, is based on U.S. Transportation Department statistics for airlines that carry at least 1 percent of the passengers who flew domestically last year. The research is sponsored by the Aviation Institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and by Wichita State University in Kansas. It can be found at: www.aqr.aero.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707