WASHINGTON - Some things did go right for airline passengers last year: Planes were more likely to land on time and bags 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, the year air travel surged to its busiest level since before the attack 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. "Every airline that we looked at in '08 and '09 got better."
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 - was to be released Monday.
The top rated airline in 2008 was Hawaiian, which flies to eight West Coast cities, Las Vegas and Phoenix in addition to the Hawaiian Islands and to 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 - it has a policy against overbooking - had so few denied boardings that its rate showed up as zero.
Despite annoying baggage fees, or perhaps because of them, airlines did better with the 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.
Airlines recorded their best rate on lost bags in 2002, the year after the terror attacks, as air travel plummeted.
Low-cost carrier 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.
Last week, Spirit Airlines became the first carrier to announce it would charge for carry-on bags - as much as $45 each way - that need to be stowed in overhead bins. But the airline also was reducing the cost of most tickets by $40.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Sunday he wants the Treasury Department to rule that carry-ons are a necessity for travel, which would make them exempt from a separate fee outside the ticket price.
The recession hit airlines hard, and they have scrambled for ways to generate income other than by raising fares. U.S. airlines collectively lost $8 billion in 2009, although regional carriers as a group were profitable, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
More than 79 percent of airline flights arrived on time in 2009, 3.4 percent better than a year earlier.
Fourteen of the 18 airlines included in the analysis improved their on-time performance from the year before. But only one-third had on-time arrival rates better then 80 percent: Hawaiian, Southwest, Alaska, SkyWest, United, and US Airways. Still, only three topped 80 percent in 2008.
At the bottom was regional carrier Comair, with only 69 percent of flights on time. The airline operates as Delta Connection. Only slightly better was Atlantic Southeast, 71.2 percent.
Fewer than one in every 100,000 passengers filed complaints with the Department of Transportation, down slightly from the previous year. Flight problems such as cancellations, delays or other schedule deviations accounted for nearly one-quarter of complaints, followed by baggage (18.7 percent), reservations, ticketing and boarding (15.1 percent), and customer service (13.9 percent).
Southwest again had the lowest complaint rate - 0.21 complaints per 100,000 passengers. Delta, whose regional partners had the worst baggage and on-time performance, had the highest complaint rate, 1.96.
The ratings, compiled annually since 1991, are based on department statistics for airlines that carry at least 1 percent of the passengers who flew domestically last year. The research is sponsored by Purdue University, in Indiana, and by Wichita State University, in Kansas.