WASHINGTON — Some things did go right for airline passengers last year: Planes were more likely to land on time and bags were less likely to get lost.

As a result, passengers reported fewer complaints in 2009 even while cash-strapped airlines reduced flight schedules and charged for everything from bags and pillows to prime spots in boarding lines.

Airline performance has been improving over the past two years. In 2007, air travel surged to its busiest level since before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and airline performance suffered a near meltdown. Last year, however, there were 704 million U.S. airline passengers, compared with 770 million in 2007.

The findings, based on an analysis of government statistics, are in the latest annual report by private researchers.

“We kind of turned a little bit of a corner in ’08 and we’re glad to say they’re continuing that generally positive (trend) for the consumer,” said Dean Headley, a Wichita State University professor and co-author of the report.

One cloud in the otherwise friendly skies was a slight increase in denied boardings, mostly bumpings due to overbooking. For every 10,000 passengers, an average of 1.19 passengers were denied boarding in 2009, compared with 1.1 passengers the previous year.

An overall ranking of the 18 airlines based on their combined performance in four categories – on-time arrivals, mishandled baggage, denied boardings, complaints – is to be released today. The top-rated airline in 2008 was Hawaiian, which flies to eight West Coast cities, Las Vegas and Phoenix as well as the Hawaiian Islands and the Philippines, Australia, Samoa and Tahiti. At the bottom was Atlantic Southeast, which operates Delta Connection regional flights.

For 2009, American Eagle, which operates regional flights for American Airlines, had the highest rate of involuntary denied boardings at 3.76 per 100,000 passengers in 2009. Low-cost carrier JetBlue, which has a policy against overbooking, had so few denied boardings that its rate showed up as zero.

Despite annoying baggage fees, or maybe because of them, airlines did better with luggage. People didn’t check as many bags last year, and fewer than 4 bags per every 1,000 travelers were lost or damaged. The rate for lost bags last year was second best in the last 20 years and about half what it was in 2007.

AirTran fared best last year, with a rate of 1.67. The worst: Atlantic Southeast, at 7.87. Most of that airline’s flights start, end or stop at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest airport.


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