A Southwest Airlines flight taxis to the runway at Dallas Love Field on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, in Dallas.

A Southwest Airlines flight taxis to the runway at Dallas Love Field on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, in Dallas. (Smiley N. Pool/Dallas Morning News/TNS)

Southwest Airlines was the nation’s best air carrier in 2020, a year when the COVID-19 pandemic upended the way people travel and forced airlines to make massive adjustments to keep flying, according to the annual Airline Quality Report from Wichita State University.

The study ranks airlines based on federal data for on-time performance, bumped passengers, mishandled bags and complaints and noted that the industry as a whole was much more reliable based on the fact that passenger traffic decreased 60% in 2020 compared to the year before. All those numbers are available through the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Still, 2020 posed some problems that challenged airlines but benefited customers who were willing to fly.

“2020 was a very hard year to measure any airline,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel consultant with Atmosphere Research Group. “Almost anything that happened last year won’t happen again.”

Southwest edged out low-cost carrier Allegiant for the top spot, followed by Delta Air Lines, Alaska Airlines and Spirit, another budget carrier. American Airlines improved three spots from 2019 to rank seventh after being ranked as the worst airline in 2019.

But a record number of passengers filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Transportation, mostly aggrieved that airlines were stubborn about giving refunds.

“The complaints went way down after April and May, depending on the airline,” said Dean Headley, the study’s author and an emeritus associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University. “If you look at Southwest, they are always among the airlines with the least complaints anyhow.”

Dallas-based Southwest ranked high in nearly every category, including the least number of complaints per passenger. Southwest still logged 1,789 passenger complaints in 2020, more than triple the number the carrier had in 2020. But it was far behind the 11,307 at United Airlines and 6,093 in the American Airlines network.

That was still fewer than three complaints for every 100,000 Southwest Airlines passengers in 2020, compared with nearly 50 complaints per 100,000 passengers at Frontier Airlines, the worst-performing airline in the category (and worst overall).

Southwest moved from third in 2019 to first in 2020. In 2019, the carrier struggled with a large number of delays and cancellations due to the grounding of the 737 Max. Southwest, which only flies Boeing 737 jets, had the largest fleet of 737 Max jets with 34. Southwest didn’t get the 737 Max back until March 2021, but the low number of passengers in 2020 meant there were plenty of planes to go around.

In 2020, Southwest managed to land 86% of its planes on time, the fourth-best of major U.S. airlines. In fact, the entire industry improved, landing 83.6% of flights on time, compared with 79.4% in 2019.

Again, fewer passengers and fewer flights made it easier for airlines to deliver on-time flights.

American’s on-time rate came in at 83.4%, ahead of only JetBlue and Allegiant.

American’s score suffered because it was the worst airline in 2020 for mishandled baggage. American did improve from 2019 but still mishandled 6.38 bags per 1,000 bags. 2020 was Southwest’s best year in history for checked bags, with the carrier ranking second, behind only Allegiant.

“When you look at it month by month, you begin to get a picture of which airline got their customer base back on board and at least somewhat more satisfied the quickest,” Headley said. “They were the ones that had the best outcomes.”

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