Airline Quality Rating Holiday Travel Forecast: Prices Are Lower, Demand Is Higher, So Book Early

Newswise — Holiday travel 2016

Airline prices are lower (6 percent for the industry) than last year, but demand is strong and seats will fill quickly. Book your holiday air travel early this year to get the seat and times you want. That's the advice from Dean Headley, Airline Quality Rating (AQR) co-author and associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University.

Demand for airline travel has been strong all year, and demand is expected to remain strong through the holiday travel weeks around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Travelers on U.S. airlines during the holidays usually find that ticket prices are higher, but prices have been coming down over the year. Lower prices should make the demand for seats at the busiest travel time of the year even stronger. With airline consolidation changing the seat availability, booking early is highly recommended to ensure your travel plans.

While industry airline performance quality has been holding steady for the past few years, the travel experience has become more stressful and uncertain, especially around the holidays. High passenger volumes and the possibility of bad weather should always be factored into holiday travel plans. Add in the recent computer system glitches and outages by airlines, and travel can become a nightmare and a ruined holiday travel experience.

"During the past several years, the holiday travel period has continued to be a challenging time for travelers, and with industrywide seat capacity adjustments, the possibility of bad weather and possible system outages, it will remain a stressful travel experience," said Headley.

"December and January typically have the worst on-time arrival percentage and mishandled baggage rates of any month. The best bet for the consumer is to travel as early before the actual holiday or as late as possible afterward, and always leave room for schedule changes either planned or unplanned."

The industry overall

Looking back, 2015 was a good year for airline performance, except for January 2015 and December 2015. Winter months consistently see poorer industry performance.

"Data shows industry performance scores are holding steady from year to year," said Headley. "We are settling in to a reduced capacity system that challenges travelers to be savvy. With strong demand for fewer seats and fewer airline providers, it presents an opportunity for the airlines to perform better. It also decreases the recovery options if something goes wrong with the planned travel."

In 2015, the best performing airlines across the combined AQR categories were Virgin America, JetBlue, Delta and Hawaiian. Hawaiian was best in on-time performance. JetBlue was best in avoiding denied boardings. Virgin America was best in baggage handling. Alaska had the lowest rate of customer complaints.

The worst performing airlines across the combined AQR categories in 2015 were Spirit Airlines, Envoy, and Frontier. Spirit had the worst on-time performance. Envoy had the worst rate of denied boardings. Envoy had the highest rate of mishandled baggage. Spirit had the highest rate of customer complaints.

What's ahead?

According to Headley, airline mergers and consolidation continue to add new dynamics to the industry and generally shrink consumer choice options. The combining of Alaska with Virgin America, United with Continental airlines, Southwest with AirTran, and American Airlines with US Airways will change the options travelers have historically had available. The success of these new mega-carriers in combining operations remains a work in progress.

"If you look at past AQR data (, you will find that combining two very large airlines does not necessarily result in improved performance and usually takes several years to settle out," said Headley. "Look back to the mergers of Delta/Northwest and U.S. Air/America West as examples and you find that these mergers brought performance problems and took longer than predicted to accomplish. Recent mergers have been better, but it still takes time to fit all the new pieces together. Passengers often are confused and unhappy during this adjustment period."

Airline fees are still a reality, so consumers need to be aware and plan for the added costs that their choices might bring. Unbundled services available a la carte are significant and creative revenue producers for airlines that have proven essential to airlines bottom line profits.

"Ticket prices may appear to be reasonable to slightly lower, but when the fees hit you, you truly feel that the overall cost of travel has gone up," said Headley. "A year ago the average price was $375, but with $75 in fees for bags and seat assignments, that ticket seems noticeably more expensive. At holiday time, when the travel involves tickets and fees for an entire family, the costs add up quickly. At some point, a traveler needs to make the call as to whether that the holiday visit is worth the price and the hassle."

Some tips

- Be flexible in your travel plans to get the lowest fare. The best deals may be limited to travel on certain days of the week (particularly midweek or Saturday) or certain hours of the day (e.g., early morning flights or overnight "red eyes"). Plan as far ahead as you can. Flights for holiday periods may sell out months ahead of time, although in many cases you can find a seat if you elect to travel on the holiday itself, e.g. Christmas Day or Thanksgiving Day.

- Using a travel agent can help explore the options available. A small fee up-front is often worth it when plans go wrong. Having an experienced travel agent on your side can help de-stress the situation and save the day.

- When selecting a flight, remember that a departure early in the day is less likely to be delayed than a later flight, because of "ripple" effects throughout the day. If you book the last flight of the day, you could get stuck overnight. Allow plenty of time to make connecting flights. Leave extra time between connections if possible, just in case flights are delayed and flight schedules get changed.

- If you have a choice between two connections and the fares and service are equivalent, choose the one with the less-congested connecting airport. This reduces the risk of misconnecting. Also consider potential adverse seasonal weather when choosing a connecting city.

- Consider paying by credit card, which provides certain protections under federal credit regulations. When a refund is due, the airline must forward a credit to your card company within seven business days.

- As soon as you receive your itinerary/confirmation, check to make sure all of the information on it is correct, especially your name, the airports (if any of the cities have more than one) and the flight dates. You will need to show a government-issued photo I.D. when you fly. It is important that your name as it appears on the ticket is the same as it appears on the I.D. you will be using.

- Airlines don't guarantee their schedules, and you should realize this when planning your trip. Re-check the departure and arrival times of your flights a few days before your trip; schedules sometimes change.

- Certain items should never be put into a piece of luggage that you plan to check into the baggage compartment. Small valuables, cash, credit cards, jewelry, or expensive camera should not be placed in checked baggage. Critical items such as medicine, keys, passport, tour vouchers, business papers, manuscripts, heirlooms, and fragile items such as eyeglasses, glass containers, and liquids are things that should be carried on your person or packed in a carry-on bag. Pack as light as possible. Ship packages or luggage ahead of time so last-minute schedule changes don't put your belongings at risk of being lost.

- Check in early (as early as 24 hours is allowed online). You can lose your entire reservation if you are not at the gate 10-15 minutes before scheduled departure time on a domestic flight (longer on international flights). If a flight is oversold, the last passengers to check in are the first to be bumped, even if they have met the check-in deadlines.

- At final check-in, verify that the agent checking your bags attaches a destination tag to each bag. Check to see that these tags show the three-letter code for your destination airport.

- Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers waiting at the airport; there are no federal requirements. Overbooking is not illegal, and most airlines overbook their scheduled flights to a certain extent in order to compensate for no-shows. Passengers are sometimes left behind or bumped as a result. If you're not in a rush to arrive at your next destination, you can voluntarily give your reservation back to the airline in exchange for compensation and a later flight. But before you do this, you may want to get answers to some questions like: When is the next flight on which the airline can confirm your seat? If the original airline re-booking is unacceptable, will they rebook you on another airline? If you need to stay overnight, will the airline provide other amenities such as free meals, a hotel room, transfers between the hotel and the airport, and a phone card? Before agreeing to accept a travel voucher as compensation for being bumped, ask about restrictions. Many vouchers have blackout dates during peak periods.

- If you are bumped involuntarily, DOT requires each airline to give all passengers bumped involuntarily a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn't. Those travelers who don't get to fly as scheduled are frequently entitled to denied boarding compensation in the form of a check or cash. The amount depends on the price of their ticket and the length of the delay.

- For more information about how airlines perform, more travel tips and advice about flyers rights, go to

Given the stress of travel and the airlines efforts to fill every seat on every flight, manners and consideration for other travelers shared space needs to be part of traveler's holiday spirit. Being a self-reliant, informed and prepared traveler is your best protection against the hassles of travel by air.

The national Airline Quality Rating for 2017 (covering the performance results of 2016) will be released Monday, April 10, 2017, at the National Press Club in Washington.

For information about the national Airline Quality Rating, go to