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Virgin America best US airline performer in 2012

| Monday, April 8, 2013, 9:27 p.m.

Virgin America did the best job for its customers among leading airlines last year, a report said on Monday, as carriers overall had their second-best performance in the more than two decades since researchers began measuring quality of service.

The report ranked the 14 largest airlines based on on-time arrivals, mishandled bags, consumer complaints and passengers who bought tickets but were turned away because flights were overbooked.

Airline performance in 2012 was the second highest in the 23 years that Wichita State University in Kansas and the University of Nebraska at Omaha have tracked the performance of airlines. The airline's best year was 2011.

Besides being the overall leader, Virgin America, headquartered in Burlingame, Calif., did the best job on baggage handling and had the second-lowest rate of passengers denied seats because of overbookings. United Airlines, whose consumer complaint rate nearly doubled last year, had the worst performance. United has merged with Continental Airlines, but has had rough spots in integrating the operations of the two carriers.

The rate at which passengers with tickets were denied seats because planes were full rose to 0.97 denials per 10,000 passengers last year, compared with 0.78 in 2011.

It used to be in cases of overbookings that airlines usually could find a passenger who would volunteer to give up a seat in exchange for cash, a free ticket or some other compensation with the expectation of catching another flight later that day or the next morning. Not anymore.

“Since flights are so full, there are no seats on those next flights. So people say, ‘No, not for $500, not for $1,000,' ” airline industry analyst Robert W. Mann Jr. said.

Regional carrier SkyWest had the highest involuntary denied-boardings rate last year, 2.32 per 10,000 passengers.

But not every airline overbooks flights in an effort to keep seats full. JetBlue and Virgin America were the industry leaders in avoiding denied boardings, with rates of 0.01 and 0.07, respectively.

United Airlines' consumer complaint rate was 4.24 complaints per 100,000 passengers. Southwest had the lowest rate, at 0.25. Southwest was among five airlines that lowered complaint rates last year compared to 2011. The others were American Eagle, Delta, JetBlue and US Airways.

Consumer complaints were significantly higher in the peak summer travel months of June, July and August when planes are crowded. This is the first year Virgin America, formed in 2007, has been large enough to be included in the rankings.

United carries 18 times more passengers than Virgin America, and has 702 planes, compared with 52 for the smaller carrier.

The number of complaints consumers filed with the Department of Transportation overall surged by one-fifth last year to 11,445 complaints, up from 9,414 in 2011.

“Over the 20-some-year history we've looked at it, this is still the best time of airline performance we've ever seen,” said Dean Headley, a business professor at Wichita State University in Kansas, who has co-written the annual report. The best year was 2011, which was only slightly better than last year, he said.

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