CHICAGO (McClatchy) — Despite a handful of high-profile incidents that dominated headlines last year, United Airlines was one of only three carriers to improve on every measure tracked by an annual airline rating.
But United still ranks eighth of 12 — the same spot it held in 2016 — after a year of overall improvement for the industry, according to the Airline Quality Rating report, released Monday. American Airlines, the other major carrier at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, also improved in all categories but saw its rank hold steady at ninth.
The report, a joint project of researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Wichita State University, rates 12 major U.S. air carriers on four categories tracked by the U.S. Department of Transportation: on-time performance, baggage handling, customer complaints and the odds of being involuntarily bumped from a flight.
Nine airlines earned higher overall scores in 2017 compared with 2016. Two of the three that slipped, Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines, were already the top-rated pair, with Alaska narrowly edging out Delta.
“The pack is catching up,” Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University, said at a news conference introducing the report.
The report came out exactly one year after a passenger was dragged off a United Express flight from O’Hare to Louisville, Kentucky, after refusing to give up his seat for airline employees. The backlash appears to have prompted the biggest change in airlines’ performance: a roughly 45 percent reduction in the share of passengers bumped from flights against their will.
Although that’s good news, it also seems airlines “only make a change when they realize they have to,” Headley said.
Airlines also saw industrywide reductions in the rate of lost, stolen or delayed bags (2.46 per 1,000 passengers in 2017, down from 2.7) and consumer complaints to the government (1.35 per 100,000 passengers, down from 1.52), while the percentage of flights arriving on time dropped from 81.4 percent in 2016 to 80.2 percent last year.
Only United, American and Frontier Airlines improved in all four categories, including punctuality, reporting gains in the share of flights arriving on time that ranged between 0.4 percent at United and 2.3 percent at Frontier.
United said some of those 2017 results, including mishandled bag rates, were the best in the company’s history.
“We have made important progress to move United decisively forward by investing in our products and people to become a better airline for everyone we serve,” spokeswoman Maggie Schmerin said in an email.
While not included in the ranking, the report’s authors also drew attention to one category where United lags other major U.S. carriers: safely transporting animals.
United suspended new bookings through its PetSafe cargo program during a review of its practices and policies after a series of mishaps last month, including the death of a French bulldog puppy placed in an overhead bin and mix-ups that left a handful of pets on the wrong flights. The French bulldog was traveling in the cabin and was not part of the PetSafe program.
United transports more animals than other carriers. But animals in its custody died or were injured at a higher rate than at other carriers too. The airline’s review is expected to conclude May 1.
“There is a way to do it right, and United seems to need to figure that one out,” Headley said.