Sometimes solid research simply confirms what most of us already knew or could have guessed.
For example, the basics of U.S. air travel today — on-time departures and arrivals and efficient baggage delivery from Point A to Point B — are more of a crapshoot than ever before. Overbooking is worse, too, and consumer complaints are up.
Those are the findings of the 25th annual report on airline performance released Monday by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Prof. Brent Bowen and Dean Headley, a marketing professor at Wichita State University. Bowen and Headley use information the airlines are required to provide to the U.S. Department of Transportation. (You can read the report in all of its glory at http://tinyurl.com/airline-performance.)
As if timed to coincide with the report’s release, an Alaska Airlines contractor made headlines this week when he fell asleep in the cargo hold of a plane bound for Los Angeles. After a few winks, he woke up and discovered the plane was in the air. An alert pilot heard the worker trying to summon help from below and made an emergency landing in Seattle, where the crew found the snoozer in the front cargo hold. No word on whether he got free cookies or crackers.
So, yes, the airline industry is an easy target for researchers and editorial writers. But a few numbers from the Bowen-Headley report are worth more attention. Although the industry’s performance declined in all four areas tracked by the researchers — mishandled baggage, “involuntary denied boardings,” on-time arrivals and consumer complaints — a little context is necessary.
The mishandled baggage rate increased from 3.21 to 3.62 per 1,000 passengers from 2013 to 2014. None of those 3.62 passengers went home happy, but do we expect perfection given the complexity of the job? Meanwhile, denied boardings (translation: getting bumped) grew from 0.89 per 10,000 passengers in 2013 to 0.92 last year — not exactly a national emergency.
Maybe most telling is that the industry’s consumer complaint rate rose to 1.38 per 100,000 passengers in 2014 from 1.13 the previous year. It seems that while most of us like to swap stories on the hassles of air travel, only a tiny number of us are compelled to complain to the DOT. That’s telling, even if the narrative suggests the sky is falling.