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Airline Service Is Better Than It Was a Year Ago, Survey Says

Aviation: With fewer flights after Sept. 11, more planes are on time and fewer bags are lost.


An annual survey released Monday confirmed what many travelers already know: Airline service is better than a year ago because a lot fewer planes are in the sky.

More flights are on time, fewer bags are getting lost and consumers' gripes are down, mainly because the airlines cut their flights by 20% or more after Sept. 11 and gave the burdened U.S. air traffic system some leeway, according to the report. However, it noted that the carriers--which were excoriated in 1999-2000 for their poor service and threatened with more federal oversight--had started doing better even before the terrorist attacks.

The challenge is whether the airlines can maintain that improvement now that they're gradually adding back service and more people are flying again, the survey's two authors said. "A focus on the consumer must not be lost," said Brent Bowen, director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Aviation Institute, who co-authored the report with Dean Headley, associate marketing professor at Wichita State University.

Using a formula that weighs various quality criteria, the authors found Alaska Airlines had the best service, followed by US Airways and Northwest Airlines. Alaska, a unit of Alaska Air Group Inc., was second last year behind Delta Air Lines, which finished fifth in the latest survey. Ironically, all of the 11 major airlines scored higher this year except Delta, according to the report, which also found that America West was the most improved carrier.

Although the airlines are adding back more flights, travel remains 10% below its year-ago levels. Business travel remains especially weak, with the sluggish economy keeping many business travelers grounded. The industry will be watching this summer's traffic as a crucial test of how much air travel has returned to normal.

Some of the survey's findings included:

* Flights were on time 77.4% of the time, up from 72.6% the previous year.

* The Transportation Department received 2.11 complaints for every 100,000 passengers, down from 2.98 in 2000.

* Airlines mishandled or lost 4.55 bags for every 1,000 bags checked on flights, down from 5.29 bags the previous year.

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