When it comes to airplane passengers complaints, United is no longer the worst airline -- it's now Frontier.
Academics who study the airline industry say that consumer complaints to the government dropped 15 percent last year after spiking in 2012.
The Airline Quality Rating (AQR) is a joint research project funded as part of faculty research activities at Wichita State University, Wichita, Kan., and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Prescott, Ariz., campus.
The researchers detailed their conclusions in a report Monday. Among their findings:
- United Airlines climbed out of last place in the rate of customer complaints. Frontier fell to last.
- American Airlines did better at staying on schedule last year than it did in 2012, when it accused pilots of a work slowdown.
- Most of the worst grades — from late flights and lost bags to bumping passengers off planes — were earned by smaller regional airlines.
Researchers at Wichita State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University compiled the report on airline quality from figures that the 15 largest airlines must report each month to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Those that self-reported to the DOT, such as Allegiant and Spirit Air, we not included in the report.
They graded the airlines on four categories:
COMPLAINTS: Consumer complaints to the government in 2013 dropped 15 percent from 2012 after rising 20 percent the year before. Best: Southwest Airlines; worst: Frontier.
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.
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.
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.
Headley said the drop in complaints might also reflect "a certain amount of resignation" that "it's never wonderful for airline passengers."
No matter how much people gripe about airlines when they're among friends, very few of the millions of fliers ever bother to file a complaint with the government. The Department of Transportation, or DOT, received 9,684 complaints last year after getting 11,447 in 2012.
Chris Lopinto, CEO of ExpertFlyer.com and not involved in the academic report, said he believes that most consumers complain directly to the airlines instead.
"The DOT can't comp you miles or comp you a voucher — only the airlines can do that," Lopinto said. "A passenger might not think to file with DOT."