Newswise — WASHINGTON, D.C. – After four years at the top of the Airline Quality Rating, Virgin America slipped to third in 2016, and the airline it announced a merger with last year – Alaska Airlines – has finished No. 1, with Delta coming in at a close second, according to the 27th annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR), released today (Monday, April 10) at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

A joint research project funded as part of faculty research activities at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University (Wichita, Kan.) and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Ariz., campus, the most recent AQR also showed that industry performance improved in all four core elements tracked by the study: on-time performance, rate of involuntary denied boardings, rate of mishandled bags and the rate of customer complaints.

Nine of the 12 airlines improved in three categories (on-time, baggage handling and customer complaints), and seven of the 12 airlines improved in all four categories. Airlines that performed better in 2016 were Alaska, American, Delta, ExpressJet, Frontier, SkyWest, Southwest, Spirit and United. Those whose scores declined in 2016 were Hawaiian, JetBlue and Virgin America.

“The best-ever overall industry AQR score is largely due to best-ever performance in the rate of involuntary denied boardings and the rate of mishandled bags,” said Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University. Air travel is great again – that statement can be followed with a period, exclamation point or question mark depending on the individual’s perspective.”

In April 2016, Seattle-based Alaska Air Group publicly announced it would be acquiring Virgin America in 2017 to form the nation’s fifth-largest airline. The 2016 Department of Transportation (DOT) data used in the study listed the airlines as separate entities.

“These results provide a rare insight into the airline merger arena. We have a carrier, Alaska, that wanted to improve performance, began improvement plans before any merger announcement, and is currently taking over the top performer, Virgin America. Going from fifth to first is rare, but a devoted corporate resolve can make that happen,” said study co-researcher Brent Bowen, dean of College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Ariz., campus. “Delta, for example, has been recovering from merger complications for several years and has climbed its way back to be a close contender for No. 1. It will be interesting to see if Alaska / Virgin America can avoid the common post-merger decline in performance. If combined they can stay at No. 1, it will be a significant departure from the past.”

An electronic version of the full report, with details on each airline, is available at Also at the website is a new feature where passengers can provide information and comments about their personal flying experiences via the 2017 Airline Passenger Survey.

Inside this year’s rating

Below is the 2016 numerical ranking of the nation’s leading 12 airlines, according to the Airline Quality Rating, with the 2015 ranking in parentheses:

  1. Alaska (5)
  2. Delta (3)
  3. Virgin America (1)
  4. JetBlue (2)
  5. Hawaiian (4)
  6. Southwest (6)
  7. SkyWest (7)
  8. United (8)
  9. American (10)
  10. ExpressJet (9)
  11. Spirit (13)
  12. Frontier (11)

NOTE: The 2015 rating included 13 airlines. Envoy is not rated in 2016.

On-time performance

Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance (91.1 percent) for 2016, and Spirit had the worst (74.3 percent).

Nine airlines improved their on-time arrival performance in 2016. Six of the 12 airlines rated had an on-time arrival percentage of better than 80 percent. On-time performance for the industry in 2016 was 81.4 percent, compared to 79.9 percent in 2015.

Involuntary denied boardings

Hawaiian and Delta were the industry leaders in avoiding involuntary denied boarding incidents in 2016 with a rate of 0.05 and 0.10 per 10,000 passengers, respectively. ExpressJet (1.51) had the highest involuntary denied boarding rate per 10,000 passengers.

Seven airlines improved their denied boarding rate in 2016. SkyWest recorded the greatest improvement.

Overall, the industry had 0.62 denied boardings per 10,000 passengers in 2016, compared to 0.76 in 2015. This is the best rate since the AQR started in 1991.

Baggage handling

Virgin America had the best baggage handling rate (1.03 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers) of all airlines, and ExpressJet had the worst baggage handling rate (4.31 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers).

Nine airlines had improved mishandled baggage rates in 2016. The industry rate decreased from 3.24 per 1,000 passengers in 2015 to 2.70 in 2016. This is the best rate since the AQR started in 1991.

Consumer complaints

Southwest had the lowest consumer complaint rate (0.47 per 100,000 passengers) of all airlines. Spirit had the highest consumer complaint rate (6.74 per 100,000 passengers).

Customer complaints per 100,000 passengers decreased from 1.90 in 2015 to 1.52 in 2016. The majority of complaints (73.5 percent) to the DOT were for flight problems (41.4 percent), baggage (12.0 percent), customer service (10.5 percent), and reservations, ticketing and boarding (9.6 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 with 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.



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 (Monday, April 10) by contacting the following: Joe Kleinsasser, Wichita State University, 316-204-8266 (cell); Lainie Mazzullo, Wichita State University, 316-978-3409 or [email protected]; or Melanie Hanns, director of University Media Relations, 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 10, at Click on the "press release" tab to access the ratings directly.

Headley and Bowen will be available for interviews following 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, or call Joe Kleinsasser at 316-204-8266. To interview Brent Bowen, please coordinate through Embry-Riddle spokeswoman Melanie Hanns at 386-283-0753.

MEDIA INFORMATION: This year’s announcement will be streamed live via Facebook at Audio and video set-ups will be available via the NPC. Advance interviews with researchers Dr. Dean Headley and Dr. Brent Bowen are available on request. Full results of the new AQR will be distributed and posted online immediately as the press conference starts at


  • Melanie Hanns, director of media relations, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; O: (386) 226-7538; C: (386) 283-0753; [email protected]
  • Joe Kleinsasser, director of news and media relations, Wichita State University; O: (316) 978-3013; C: (316) 204-8266; [email protected]

About Embry-Riddle Aeronautical UniversityEmbry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the world’s largest, fully accredited university specializing in aviation and aerospace, is a nonprofit, independent institution offering more than 80 baccalaureate, master’s and Ph.D. degree programs in its colleges of Arts & Sciences, Aviation, Business, Engineering and Security & Intelligence. Embry-Riddle educates students at residential campuses in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Prescott, Ariz., through the Worldwide Campus with more than 125 locations in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and through online programs. The university is a major research center, seeking solutions to real-world problems in partnership with the aerospace industry, other universities and government agencies. For more information, visit, follow us on Twitter (@EmbryRiddle) and, and find expert videos at

About Wichita State UniversityThe mission of Wichita State University ( is to be an essential educational, cultural and economic driver for Kansas and the greater public good. Wichita State is a doctoral research university enrolling nearly 15,000 students and offering 59 undergraduate degree programs in more than 150 areas of study in seven undergraduate colleges. The Graduate School offers 45 master’s and 12 doctoral degrees that offer study in more than 100 areas. Wichita State’s Innovation Campus ( is an interconnected community of partnership buildings, laboratories and mixed-use areas where students, faculty, staff, entrepreneurs and businesses have access to the university’s vast resources and technology.