Southwest No. 1 in Airline Quality Rating

The Dallas-based carrier jumped in the ranking due to a low rate of consumer complaints
Passengers wait to board a Southwest Airlines flight at Dallas Love Field on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, in Dallas. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Passengers wait to board a Southwest Airlines flight at Dallas Love Field on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, in Dallas. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

With the lowest rate of customer complaints among the nation’s largest airlines, Southwest Airlines came in at No. 1 in an annual Airline Quality Rating.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines came in third place, ahead of competitors American Airlines in seventh place and United Airlines in eighth.

The Airline Quality Rating released by Wichita State University is calculated by researchers based on on-time performance, involuntary bumping, mishandled baggage and consumer complaints, drawing on data reported to the federal government.

In a year in which air travel fell 60% due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the problems airline customers ran into were overwhelmingly related to getting refunds. As the coronavirus took hold and passengers were forced to cancel trips, refund problems replaced many of the usual gripes about flights, customer service and baggage handling.

The percentage of complaints to the U.S. Department of Transportation about refunds jumped from 6.6% 2019 to 82.8% in 2020, setting a record. Some airlines “adapted quicker than others,” according to the report.

Southwest’s relatively low rate of complaints brought it up to the No. 1 spot in 2020 from the No. 3 spot in 2019. Dallas-based Southwest, the second-largest carrier in Atlanta, allowed more booking flexibility even before the pandemic due to its long-standing policy of no change fees. Many customers, however, sought refunds rather than changing flights.

Carriers early on in the pandemic faced a cash crunch, and the U.S. airline industry ended the year with a $35 billion net loss, according to U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics data released Monday.

Delta, the dominant carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson, had the second-lowest rate of customer complaints of the carriers in the Airline Quality Rating and rose one notch in the ranking. In a separate American Customer Satisfaction Index survey released last week, Delta and Southwest tied for the top spot.

While millions of Americans stayed home for much of last year, those who did fly found less crowded airports and planes. Far fewer passengers were denied boarding due to overbooked flights. Air traffic in the skies was also less congested, and airlines overall improved their on-time performance.

As more people are vaccinated and begin to travel again, more crowded planes may return as one of the frustrations of flying. Delta this month began filling middle seats, ending to its popular seat blocking policy, as it prepares for a busy summer period.

Airline Quality Rating ranking of the nation’s 10 largest airlines in 2020 (2019 ranking in parentheses):

1. Southwest (3)

2. Allegiant (1)

3. Delta (4)

4. Alaska (5)

5. Spirit (8)

6. JetBlue (6)

7. American (10)

8. United (9)

9. Hawaiian (2)

10. Frontier (7)

Source: Airline Quality Rating