Airline quality rating holiday travel forecast: Book early

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Holiday travel 2014

Book your holiday air travel early this year. Travel volumes have been strong all year and the holidays only add to the pressure of finding seats. This holiday season should see continued high demand for air travel. Travelers on U.S. airlines during the days surrounding Thanksgiving and Christmas usually find that ticket prices are higher and seats are harder to find. With continued capacity restrictions (fewer seats available) across the industry and increased demand by travelers, booking early is highly recommended.

While industry airline performance quality has generally improved each year since 2007, the travel experience has become more stressful and uncertain, especially around the end-of-the-year holidays. High passenger volumes and the possibility of bad weather should always be considered as holiday travel plans are made.

“During the past several years, the holiday travel period has continued to be a challenging time for travelers, and with industrywide seat capacity reduction, it will remain a stressful travel experience ,” said Dean Headley, Airline Quality Rating co-author and associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University.

“December typically has one of the worst industry performance scores of any month. December 2013 was the worst performance score for all of 2013. The best bet for the consumer is to travel as early before the actual holiday or as late as possible afterward, and always leave room for schedule changes.”

The industry overall

Looking back, 2013 was a steady year for airline performance, said Headley. Data indicate that improvement trends continued for the first five months of 2013.

“Data shows performance scores are holding steady,” said Headley. “We are settling in to a reduced-capacity system that challenges travelers to be more savvy. With strong demand for fewer seats, it also presents an opportunity for the airlines to perform better, but also charge more for a ticket.”

Headley points out that 2013 data showed consistently improved industry performance (month over month) for five of the last six months of 2013 compared to 2012. December 2013 was the worst performance month for the airlines in 16 months.

“Travel in late 2013 was actually getting better as we approached the end of the year, until we got to December,” said Headley. “December 2013 was the worst month for airline performance since July 2012.”

In 2013, the best performing airlines across the combined AQR categories were Virgin America, Jet Blue, Hawaiian, Delta, and Alaska. Hawaiian was best in on-time performance. Jet Blue and Virgin America were best in avoiding denied boardings. Virgin America was best in baggage handling. Southwest had the lowest rate of customer complaints.

The worst performing airlines across the combined AQR categories in 2013 were American Eagle, SkyWest, Express Jet, United, and Frontier. American Eagle, ExpressJet, and Frontier had the worst on-time performances. SkyWest had the worst rate of denied boardings. American Eagle had the highest rate of mishandled baggage. Frontier had the highest rate of customer complaints.

What’s ahead?

According to Headley, airline mergers and consolidation continue to add new dynamics to the industry and shrink consumer choice options. The combining of United with Continental airlines, Southwest with AirTran, and American Airlines with US Airways has changed the options travelers have historically had available. The success of these new mega-carriers in combining operations is a work in progress. Also of note is the full repeal of the Wright amendment that restricted operations for Southwest Airlines out of Dallas Love Field. Look for new travel options by Southwest after Oct. 15, 2014 and responses to those changes by other airlines.

“If you look at past AQR data (http://airlinequalityrating.com), you will find that combining two very large airlines does not necessarily result in improved performance and usually takes several years to settle out,” said Headley. “Look back to the Delta/Northwest and U.S. Air/America West mergers, and you find that these mergers brought performance problems and opportunities for the new carriers.”

Airline fees are still a reality, so consumers need to be aware and plan for the added costs that their choices might bring. Unbundled services available a la carte are creative revenue producers for airlines that have shown great potential to help the bottom line.

“Ticket prices may appear to be reasonable to slightly higher, but when the fees hit you, you truly feel that the overall cost of travel has gone up,” said Headley. “Maybe a year ago the average price was $350, but with $75 in fees, that ticket seems noticeably more expensive. When the travel involves tickets and fees for the parents and children, the costs add up quickly. At some point, consumers will simply say that the holiday visit is not worth the price and the hassle.”

Given the stress of travel and the airlines efforts to fit more seats into existing airplane cabins, recent seat-rage incidents seemed inevitable.

“Travelers are getting bigger and the seats are getting smaller and tighter together,” Headley says. “Seat configuration is not about passenger comfort, it is about revenue for the airlines.”

According to Headley, manners and consideration for other travelers shared space needs to be part of traveler’s holiday spirit. Being a self-reliant and considerate traveler is your best protection against the hassles of travel by air. Always check your flight status well in advance of going to the airport and check-in online 24 hours in advance if possible.

Headley also suggests when booking air travel during the holidays, allow time to make the connecting flight. Leave extra time between connections in case flights are delayed and flight schedules get changed. Pack as light as possible. Ship packages or luggage ahead of time so last-minute schedule changes don’t put your belongings at risk of being lost.

The national Airline Quality Rating for 2015 (covering the performance results of 2014) will be released Monday, April 13, 2015, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

For information about the national Airline Quality Rating, go to http://airlinequalityrating.com.

Source: Wichita State University

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