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Airline quality report: Better service, fewer passengers

With air travel down in 2008, fewer planes were late and fewer bags were lost in airlines' best performance since 2004.

Travelers lined up at the ticketing counter for Continental Airlines at Denver International Airport in December 2008. According to the annual National Airline Quality Rating (AQR) report released today, fewer planes were late, fewer bags were lost, and fewer people got bumped from their flights in 2008.

David Zalubowski/AP/FILE

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Finally, there's some good news for the weary, flying public. The nation's airlines' overall performance was the best it's been in four years.

According to the annual National Airline Quality Rating (AQR) report released today, fewer planes were late, fewer bags were lost, and fewer people got bumped from their flights in 2008.

But here's the catch: It's in large part because fewer people were flying due to the recession. And those that did fly found they had less flights to choose from, and that those flights cost more and had fewer frills than before. Indeed, the few additions to the flying experience in 2008 included new fees for checked bags and pillows.

Some airlines also added in-flight Internet service – a boon for business travelers even if it comes at extra cost.

"We're now in a time when the system is constricting and performing reasonably well," says Dean Headley, a coauthor of the report and an assistant professor of marketing at Wichita Sate University in Kansas.

"You have to hope this better performance is not just attributable to fewer people flying – that's part of it," he adds. "But you also hope the airlines are saying, 'By golly, we've got to do better.... Now that we're charging people for bags, let's not lose so many of them.'"

The improved service may make it harder for advocates to get a Passengers' Bill of Rights through Congress this year, according to some analysts. But it also represents an opportunity to make the aviation system healthier, sustainable, and more consumer-friendly in the long-term.

Top of the to-do list for Congress is the nation's archaic air traffic control system – the primary source of aviation woes, it has led to congested skies and airports and the still-large number of delays and cancellations. (Even though there were three percent fewer delays in 2008 than in 2007, according to the AQR report, almost one-quarter of all flights were still late last year.)

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