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There’s no shortage of headlines highlighting disastrous airline industry news, from United Airlines banning girls from wearing leggings on board two years ago to WOW Air ceasing operations last month leaving thousands of passengers stranded. When booking flights, many of us are more apt to choose the cheapest fare, but given that you’ll be bound to your seat for hours at a time (not to mention the time it takes to get through security), it pays to be a little more discriminating with your choice. There’s something to be said about beginning — and ending — your trip on the right foot.

To help guide you, W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University released the 29th annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR) today. By analyzing factors like mishandled baggage, denied boarding, consumer complaints and on-time arrival, researchers ranked the nine largest airlines in the United States from best to worst in the following order: Delta, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, United Airlines, Spirit Airlines, American Airlines and Frontier Airlines.

Source: Diy13/Shutterstock

Delta is up one spot from second last year, with fewer denied boardings (0.05 of 10,000 in 2017 were denied boarding compared to none in 2018). Budget-friendly Spirit Airlines demonstrated the highest improvement overall and Alaska, American and Frontier Airlines all saw a decrease in overall performance.

It might seem as though only disastrous incidents make the news, but the study found that the overall AQR rating improves each year. This year’s airline industry fared better in three of the four categories tracked, with an improvement in tracking baggage, more passengers allowed onto their flights and fewer passenger complaints related to baggage and flight problems; reservation; ticketing and boarding issues; or poor customer service.

Overall on-time arrival, however, was down 0.6 percent last year from 80.6 percent the previous year. It is unclear whether this drop in timeliness is attributed to aircraft malfunction or poor weather conditions. However, separate research from the U.S. Department of Transportation found that 78.9 percent of flights are on time, with 6.42 percent of flights delayed due to the National Aviation System, which refers to the overarching network of factors that determine flight timing like air traffic control and airport operations.

Marissa Miller
Personal finance and travel writer