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Study of Flight Data Ranks Southwest as 6th

By Charlsse Jones

A new ranking of U.S. airlines has Southwest taking a back seat.

The low-fare giant, which carries more passengers within the U.S. than any other airline, is often at the top of consumer-satisfaction rankings. But a new assessment by fare-tracker Airfarewatchdog.com questions consumers’ perceptions.

It puts Southwest’s overall performance at No. 6 among 10 major U.S. airlines, tied with Delta. Virgin America was No. 1, followed by low-cost carrier JetBlue.

Airfarewatchdog based its rankings on varying months of data — the most recent available at the time of its assessment — from the Transportation Department and the American Consumer Survey Index.

It looked at categories that are particularly important to passengers, such as the percentage of canceled flights and the rate that bags are mishandled.

Southwest, for instance, had 75 bumped passengers per 1 million, according to Transportation Department Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports for January to March, the fare-tracking site says. That was better than United, which had 173 bumped passengers per 1 million and ranked last among airlines in overall performance. Six other carriers, including JetBlue, Delta and Alaska, had a lower rate of bumped passengers than Southwest.

“Usually rankings are done on passenger perceptions, surveys,” says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. “Those can be more subjective. This is an attempt to do a more objective analysis of the available statistics.”

Hobica says it wasn’t surprising that Virgin America, known for its chic, modern fleet, came out on top. Similarly, large traditional network airlines such as US Airways, United and American often tend to trail low-cost carriers in industry rankings.

But Southwest’s midtier perch “might be a bit of a shock,” he says. “They decided they wanted to get more market share and dip their toes into more crowded airports and that affected their on-time performance and cancellation performance.

“People love them because their fees are lower. They don’t charge for first and second bags. Their flight attendants are great, but they are not the super-performers that they used to be.”

AirTran, which is merging with Southwest, ranked No. 3 overall.

Rankings of the nation’s airlines roll out regularly, and most show Southwest is viewed favorably for efficiency and cost. A June survey of North American airlines by J.D. Power and Associates, for instance, found that among low-fare carriers, Southwest was second only to JetBlue in overall customer satisfaction.

George Shaw wasn’t shocked that Southwest didn’t come out on top of the Airfarewatchdog list, though.

“They are no longer the low-price airline,” says Shaw, a salesman who lives in Lincoln University, Pa., who’s flown Southwest for decades. “I can almost always get a ticket on someone else for less money.”

He also points up Southwest’s large fleet and flight schedule. “Statistically, (Southwest) has a higher chance of having bad moments and less-than-stellar people,” he says. “I will continue to fly (Southwest), but I am not nearly as loyal as I was in the past.”

Don Schmincke, an author and speaker who lives in Baltimore, questions the criteria used in the ranking. Frequent business travelers like him aren’t as likely to fly Virgin America, he says, simply because its network is limited.

“Not that they aren’t a terrific airline, but unless you are commuting on one of their routes, or an infrequent tourist, would this ranking be accurate,” he says.

This week alone, Schmincke will be in five cities, but he won’t be flying Virgin America to any of them. “Instead I’ll be on Southwest, United, American and Delta.”


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