On the same day Virgin America announced it had accepted a buyout offer from Alaska Airlines, an important annual airline rating study once again named Virgin the best airline in the U.S.
Alaska maintained its position as fifth in the country, with JetBlue, Delta and Hawaiian rounding out the top five.
The annual Airline Quality Rating — a joint venture between Dr. Brent Bowen at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Dr. Dean E. Headly at Wichita State University — compares metrics for everything from on-time performance to customer complaints.
First, the good news: The airline industry’s performance, on the whole, improved in 2015 in three out of four areas the researchers tracked.
For on-time performance, the 13 airlines averaged a 79.9% rate compared to 76.2% in 2014. Hawaiian posted the best results in 2015, with 88.4%; Spirit Airlines posted the worst with 69%.
Eight of the airlines improved their baggage handling, with just 3.24 bags mishandled per 1,000 passengers. That’s down from 3.62 in 2014.
When it came to involuntary denied boardings, the industry also showed a decrease, from 0.92 per 10,000 passengers in 2014 to 0.76 in 2015. JetBlue and Hawaiian were the best at not turning away passengers, with 0.02 and 0.03 denials per 10,000 passengers respectively.
The bad news? Customer complaints to the Department of Transportation continue to rise. In 2015, there were 1.9 complaints per 100,000 passengers, up from 1.38 in 2014. Complaints focused on flight problems; baggage; reservations, ticketing and boarding; and customer service.
Since complaints were the only category to increase, it might not be as bad as it looks: There is an ongoing effort to push airlines to make it easier for passengers to complain, so the rise in complaints may not reveal more problems, but instead more awareness by passengers that someone will listen to them about their bad experience.
Including all the metrics, these were the rankings of U.S. airlines (the airlines’ 2014 ranking is in parentheses):
Virgin America (1)
Envoy Air (12)
Spirit (new to rating in 2015)