WASHINGTON -- Travelers increasingly are unhappy with airlines, ranking lost luggage among their biggest complaints, according to an annual survey by university researchers that rates carriers' quality.
"They're less on time, they're losing bags at a rate they've never done before and people are complaining again," said Dean Headley, co-author of the study being released today.
Passenger complaints increased 17 percent last year over 2004 and the rate of mishandled baggage jumped from 4.83 per 1,000 passengers to 6.06 in 2005.
Customer satisfaction last year was the lowest since 2000, said Headley, an associate professor at Wichita State University in Kansas.
The height of delays, cancellations and anger over being left stranded in terminals was reached five years ago, partly because of weather woes and passenger volume.
Passengers are now returning to pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels, but there are 200,000 fewer airline employees to serve them, Headley said.
Intense competition from low-fare airlines and high fuel prices have forced many traditional airlines to cut back or charge passengers for amenities.
Many airlines no longer serve meals on flights. Some charge for pillows. And there's a price now for overweight or extra bags.
"Airlines know their consumers," Headley said. "I'm not sure they know how far they can push them."
Airline industry spokesman David Castelveter said carriers know their service has suffered and are trying to improve it.
"They're trying their best," Castelveter said. "They're taking advantage of technology to make the airport experience more pleasant."
Airlines have installed ticketing kiosks and machines that read boarding passes at the gates, and have added flight delay information to their Web sites, he said.
But airlines do not have control over all the things that annoy passengers, said Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which lobbies for the airlines.
"They're dealing with weather delays, air traffic control delays and new security measures," he said. "You've got airplanes misconnecting, passengers misconnecting and baggage misconnecting. That all translates into unhappy passengers."
The Airline Quality Rating study is based on Transportation Department statistics for airlines that carry at least 1 percent of the passengers who flew domestically last year. The research is sponsored by the University of Nebraska's aviation institute and Wichita State University.
Among the study's conclusions:
--Southwest Airlines had the lowest rate of complaints, 0.18 per 100,000 passengers; US Airways had the highest, 1.86.
--ATA had the highest rate of denied boardings, 2.75 per 10,000 passengers; JetBlue had the lowest at 0.
--AirTran had the best baggage handling rate, mishandling 3.43 bags per 1,000 passengers; Atlantic Southeast had the worst, mishandling 17.41 bags per 1,000 passengers.
On the Net:
Transportation Department: http://www.dot.gov
Study site: http://ai.unomaha.edu