It’s Not Just Your Imagination: Airlines Are Getting Worse

Yup, that line.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The year that brought us multiple in-air scuffles over legroom was pretty bad for U.S. airlines as a whole. Airline quality declined broadly in 2014 as on-time performance slipped and the frequency of baggage mishandling and people being involuntarily kicked off their flights increased, according to an annual report released on Monday. Perhaps not surprisingly, the rate of consumer complaints also ticked up to 1.38 per 100,000 passengers, from 1.13 per 100,000 passengers in 2013. The Airline Quality Rating is a statistical analysis compiled every year using data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Virgin America notched the best overall score among the 12 biggest U.S. airlines for the third year running, while Envoy Airlines posted the worst. Delta budged up a spot from the previous year to rank third in overall quality and JetBlue fell two spots to place fourth. In terms of the particulars, Hawaiian was by far the timeliest airline while the most complaints were lodged against Frontier. Across all U.S. airlines, declining quality “does not send a positive message to consumers that see an industry enjoying positive economic times,” the authors wrote.

The latest airline quality report adds some hard data to otherwise anecdotal evidence that U.S. airlines are getting worse and passengers’ tempers are running shorter. In the middle of last year, a bout of “recline rage” hit travelers as multiple flights were forced to divert because fights over legroom broke out on board. (The instigator in those squabbles was the Knee Defender, a pocket-size travel device that locks on the fold-out tray on the back of airline seats to prevent the person in front of you from reclining. Use of it is banned by most major U.S. airlines.) Once-standard amenities on flights—like seat selection and complimentary checked bags—are being replaced with “optional” service fees, and seats are shrinking as air carriers move to cram more passengers onto each plane.

Customers hate changes like these, and yet they also refuse to pay for something better. In recent years, ultra-low-cost airlines Spirit and Allegiant have consistently outperformed their peers in terms of operating profit. (Spirit wasn’t included in the 2014 quality report because it didn’t meet the threshold passenger revenue, but the authors say they expect it to appear in the following year’s report.) JetBlue, the longtime proponent of roomier seats and “first bag free,” is shrinking its seats this year and introducing a first-bag fee. Between all that and the latest air quality report, airlines probably aren’t winning over any new fans. But until customers start protesting with their wallets, the industry might not do anything about it.