The 19th annual Airline Quality Rating has just been released by researchers at St. Louis University and Wichita State University, and the news is...pick your adjective: encouraging, surprising, suspect, generous, exaggerrated, overdue, no-way-this-can-be-true, whatever. This is because
the report claims that the performance of the nation's leading carriers improved
for the first time in five years. "In a rare occurrence, the industry improved in all four major elements of the AQR: on-time performance, baggage handling, denied boardings and customer complaints," say the researchers. But it's a bit of a back-handed compliment, rooted in the law of unintended consequences: "There's another factor behind the enhanced ratings that should cause passengers to take the good news with a grain of salt. 'We know the system performs better when it's less stressed by high passenger volume,' said Dean Headly, associate professor of marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University. 'The economy scared away both business and leisure travelers in 2008.' " His colleague agreed. "'We saw this happen after 9/11, so the reatings didn't come as a real surprise,' said Brent Bowen, chairman of the aviation science department at the Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology at St. Louis University." Look for an article later this year in
Air & Space
that will examine whether this study actually affects an airline's fortunes. Is the AQR rating like a restaurant review? Do airlines fret over their ranking? Gloat if they're near the top? Does anyone care? The winner this year,
, is one that you might keep on your radar...that is, if the recession lets you dream up enough money for a trip to the Pacific paradise.