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Gripes during air travel decrease

But delays, lost baggage increase

– A big drop in customer complaints helped U.S. airlines post their best ratings ever even though more flights were late and more bags were mishandled, according to a report released Monday by university researchers.

Virgin America topped the ratings, and three regional airlines scored at the bottom.

Among the four biggest airlines, Delta ranked best followed by Southwest, American and United, according to researchers from Wichita State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The researchers have graded airlines since 1991 on government figures for on-time performance, mishandled bags, bumping passengers, and complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Their key findings:

On-time performance: Airlines operated 78.4 percent of their flights on time in 2013, down from 81.8 percent in 2012. Best: Hawaiian Airlines; worst: American Eagle. Only two airlines improved: American Airlines and United.

Bag handling: The rate of lost, stolen or delayed bags rose 5 percent. Best: Virgin America; worst: American Eagle.

Bumping: The rate of bumping passengers from flights fell 8 percent. Best: JetBlue Airways; worst: SkyWest.

Complaints: Consumer complaints to the government dropped 15 percent in 2013 after rising 20 percent the year before. Best: Southwest Airlines; worst: Frontier.

One of the report’s authors, Wichita State business professor Dean Headley, credited the drop in complaints partly to United Airlines. The company suffered several computer-network outages and grounded hundreds of flights in 2012 when it combined the United and Continental computer networks after a merger, but “got their act together” in 2013, he said.

It’s not clear that the researchers captured the mood of travelers. No matter how much people gripe about airlines, very few of the millions of fliers ever bother to file a complaint.

The Department of Transportation received just 9,684 complaints last year after getting 11,447 in 2012.

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