Newswise — As Virgin America claimed the top spot for the third consecutive year, overall U.S. airline performance slipped in 2014, according to the 25th annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR) released Monday at the National Press Club in Washington. The AQR is a joint research project funded as part of faculty research activities at Wichita State University (Wichita, Kan.) and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Ariz., campus.

After a best-ever year in overall performance in 2013, only three of 12 U.S. airlines evaluated actually improved this past year. And while one held steady, eight airlines declined.

Overall, the airline industry collectively declined in the AQR’s four core elements of the study: on-time performance, involuntary denied boardings, mishandled baggage and customer complaints.

Behind Virgin America, which has ranked No. 1 three years in a row, was Hawaiian Airlines (up from third in 2013) and Delta (up from fourth in 2013). The other airline that improved in overall performance in 2014 was Southwest, which rose from eighth to sixth place.

The airline industry has performed well in recent years, so a decline is a red flag for consumers, according to the researchers.

Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University, says the weaker overall performance shows that the recent round of mergers means airlines still have work to do to compete for customer loyalty.

“Bigger isn’t always better, and the downturn in performance suggests that customer perceptions of poor outcomes are warranted,” said Headley.

Study co-researcher Brent Bowen, dean of College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Ariz., campus, agreed.

“Airline mergers and consolidations are taking a systemic toll that is bad for consumers,” said Bowen. “Performance by the airlines is slipping while they claimed this would make them better.”

One of the airlines that improved its overall ranking during 2014 was Delta.

“Delta is an excellent example of a merger that declined in performance and systematically has clawed its way back to a new high level of quality performance,” Bowen said. “This shows that if an airline commits to improving their AQR rating, they can do it.”

The AQR score also reflects some of the complexities of an airline industry serving customers in a capacity-limited air travel system.

“When you look at the past 14 years, you find that the airline industry performs most efficiently when the system isn’t stressed by high passenger volume and high number of airplanes in the air,” said Headley. “With continued capacity limits and consolidation, one would hope that a less congested system would perform better. We did not see that in 2014.

“The challenge is whether airline performance quality improvements at this level can be maintained as more people choose to fly. Does the infrastructure and air traffic control technology limit what the airlines can actually do?”

Bowen says the answer to that question and others like it will be sought by researchers and the flying public in the years to come.

“With AQR performance factors in a state of overall decline, it is easy to understand why passengers and many of the airline employees they encounter are not happy and are significantly frustrated,” Bowen said. “With the high profits being realized by airlines, it is evident they are not investing in customer service and restoring employee concessions given up during the economic decline.

“The airlines have a duty to maximize service to the American public given the trust we provided them through a very low regulatory environment.”

An electronic version of the full report, with details on each airline, is available at Inside this year’s rating

Below is the 2014 numerical ranking of the nation’s leading 12 airlines, according to the Airline Quality Rating, with the 2013 ranking in parentheses:1. Virgin America (1)2. Hawaiian (3)3. Delta (4)4. JetBlue (2)5. Alaska (5)6. Southwest (8) (includes AirTran)7. American (9) (includes USAirways)8. Frontier (11)9. United (12) (includes Continential)10. SkyWest (14)11. ExpressJet (13)12. Envoy/American Eagle (15) Virgin America remained No. 1 in 2014. Hawaiian and Delta improved in the rating, to No. 2 and No. 3 respectively. The ranking positions were affected by the consolidation of several airlines, lowering the number of positions available. On-time performance

Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance (91.9 percent) for 2014, and Envoy/American Eagle had the worst (68.8 percent). Only three airlines improved their on-time arrival performance in 2014. Four of the 12 airlines rated had an on-time arrival percentage of better than 80 percent. On-time performance for the industry in 2014 was 76.2 percent, compared to 78.4 percent in 2013. Denied boardings

Virgin America and Hawaiian are clearly the industry leaders in avoiding denied boarding incidents with a rate of 0.09 and 0.12 per 10,000 passengers, respectively. ExpressJet and SkyWest had the highest involuntary denied boarding rate at 2.71 per 10,000 passengers for both airlines.

Two airlines improved their denied boardings rate in 2014. Delta recorded the greatest improvement, and ExpressJet had the largest decline. Overall, the industry had 0.92 denied boardings per 10,000 passengers in 2014, compared to 0.89 in 2013. Baggage handling

Virgin America had the best baggage handling rate (0.95 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers) of all airlines, and Envoy/American Eagle had the worst baggage handling rate (9.02 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers).

Only five airlines had improved mishandled baggage rates in 2014. The industry rate increased from 3.21 per 1,000 passengers in 2013 to 3.62 in 2014. Consumer complaints

Alaska had the lowest consumer complaint rate (0.42 per 100,000 passengers) of all airlines. Frontier had the highest consumer complaint rate (3.91 per 100,000 passengers).

Customer complaints per 100,000 passengers increased from 1.13 in 2013 to 1.38 in 2014. The majority of complaints (74 percent) to the Department of Transportation were for flight problems (37.8 percent), baggage (14.3 percent), reservations, ticketing and boarding (11.3 percent) and customer service (10.6 percent). More about the Airline Quality Rating As the nation’s longest running study of airline performance quality, the Airline Quality Rating ( sets the industry standard, providing consumers and industry watchers a means to compare performance quality among airlines using objective performance-based data.

No other study in the country is based on performance measures like the AQR. Criteria included in the report are screened to meet two basic elements: They must be readily obtainable from published data sources for each airline, and they must be important to consumers regarding airline quality. The resulting criteria include areas such as baggage handling, customer complaints, denied boardings and on-time arrivals.

Reports from consumers to the AQR researchers have become increasingly popular during the past several years, say Bowen and Headley. The co-authors invite the flying public to participate in the Annual Passenger Survey at # # # # # MEDIA NOTES:

Media unable to attend the news conference in Washington, D.C., may receive a copy of the AQR news release on the day of the news conference (April 13) by contacting the following: Joe Kleinsasser, Wichita State University, 316-204-8266 (cell); Lainie Rusco, Wichita State University, 316-978-3409 or [email protected]; or Melanie Hanns, director of university communications, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, 386-226-7538, 386-283-0753 (cell) or [email protected]

An electronic version of the full report will be available after 9:30 a.m. (EDT) Monday, April 13, at Click on the "press release" tab to access the ratings directly.

Headley and Bowen will be available for interviews after Monday's news conference. To reach Headley, call the Hilton Garden Inn in Washington, D.C., at 202-783-7800 and ask for the room of Dean Headley. To interview Brent Bowen, please coordinate through Embry-Riddle spokeswoman Melanie Hanns at 386-283-0753.