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Do merging airlines actually mean better customer service?

United Airlines passengers line up to rebook flights that were canceled due to weather on February 8, 2013 in San Francisco, Calif.

There was a big report out today, on airline performance. Every year, Wichita State University and Purdue University run the data on the number of lost bags, on-time takeoffs and landings, and passenger complaints. 

Last year, despite all those mergers and what are now mega-airlines, quality was almost at the highest it’s been in more than 20 years.

“United was dead last, as far as the numbers go,” says Dean Headley, who co-authored the report. He is an associate professor marketing at Wichita State.

United merged with Continental almost two years ago, and there wasn’t much of a honeymoon. What dragged down United, Headley says, is how often passengers complained.

“You mean, we’re going to be delayed an hour?!  I’m going to tell somebody.”

After a merger, there usually is an adjustment period, but Headley says some of them have gone better than others. Take Delta and Northwest, for instance. They merged in 2008, and now, Delta is number four in the ranking.

Number one is Virgin America, a carrier that is pretty small and still pretty new, that hasn’t bought -- or been bought by -- another airline.

Alan Bender is an airline economist at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and he calls these annual rankings “controversial.” Data can only tell us so much.

“A flight can be on time, and the bags are not lost, however it is five hours of shear misery,” he says.

Sure, more flights are on time, but those planes probably aren’t that comfortable.

Another thing worth considering is that our standards have changed. Wichita State’s Dean Headley gets this question a lot: “How was your flight?”

“The best I’ve been able to tell them: uneventful,” he says. “If nothing really good happened, nothing really bad happened, goes as planned, that’s a good flight.  That’s about as good as it gets.”

And as good as we can hope for, maybe, with two more mergers on the way, between Southwest Airlines and AirTran, and US Airways and American Airlines.


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About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
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