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Southwest Airlines, despite cracks in planes, among Top 5 airlines

Southwest ranks No. 5 in new airline quality report. The annual report points to a new No. 1 in airline performance.

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A member of the National Transportation and Safety Board investigating the emergency landing of Southwest Airlines flight 812 cuts away a portion of the planes fuselage on Sunday, April 3, 2011 in Yuma, Ariz. A new report ranked Southwest Airlines as the fifth best airline and AirTran as No. 1.

Craig Fry / AP

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Airlines are getting better – if you grade on the curve.

They’re flying fewer planes than they were before the Great Recession. That means fewer flights that can be delayed, less baggage that can be lost. According to the Air Quality Rating (AQR) released this month, it is the best performance for the US airline industry since at least 2004.

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“The overall industry AQR score was better in 2010 than in 2009, due to improved industry performance in three of the four areas tracked,” says the Airline Quality Rating 2011 report, published by Profs. Brent Bowen of Purdue and Dean Headley of Wichita State University.

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Well, yes, when graded by the airlines’ performance in these specifics: On-time arrival performance improved marginally; mishandled baggage rates were down to 3.49 per 1,000 passengers (vs. 3.88 in 2009); and involuntary denied boardings per passenger were also down.

“The improvement trend in AQR scores since 2007 speaks well of the industry efforts in difficult times,” the reports says.

But airline passengers disagree – even according to the same survey. Consumer complaint rates are up to 1.22 per 100,000 passengers, far higher than the 0.97 per 100,000 in 2009.

In all, consumers filed 9,119 complaints against US airlines, according to the US Department of Transportation. Nearly half of them were for either flight problems or baggage handling problems, the report said. Taking all 16 rated airlines together, the industry improved from a level of -1.27 in 2009 to -1.20 in 2010.

Some airlines did better than others. Here are the top five airlines, according to the new report:

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  1. AirTran -0.48
  2. Hawaiian -0.58
  3. JetBlue -0.70
  4. Alaska -0.94
  5. Southwest -1.01

And what about the worst five?

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Here they are:

1. American Eagle -2.82

2. Atlantic Southeast -1.72

3. Comair -1.56

4. Mesa -1.53

5. United -1.31

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