THE skies got a little friendlier last year, and Americans complained less often about the service they received from the nation's airlines. But if other carriers follow Spirit Airlines' decision to charge passengers for carry-on luggage, all bets may be off.
An annual report prepared by two professors - one from Purdue University, the other from Wichita State University - rates the quality of service provided by the nation's 18 busiest airlines based on on-time performance, lost or mishandled baggage, denied boardings, and customer complaints. Hawaiian Airlines finished at the top of the list for the second year in a row, followed by Airtran, JetBlue, and Northwest. Last on the list was American Eagle, a regional affiliate of American Airlines. Just above American Eagle were Atlantic Southeast and Comair, both owned by Delta, which finished fourth from the bottom.
In general, more American carriers ran on schedule in 2009 than the year before, and fewer airlines lost passengers' bags. On the negative side, a slightly higher percentage of people were bumped from flights, but customers overall were more satisfied with service, resulting in a downtick in complaints.
But there could be clouds on the horizon.
Last week, Spirit Airlines announced it was going to start charging customers $20 to $45 for most carry-on luggage. Spirit says it will soften the blow by exempting some items and reducing ticket prices, and claimed the new fee actually will be a boon for travelers because fewer carry-on items will speed up boarding and deplaning.
Passengers still will be allowed a free bag if it fits under the seat, meaning that foot space between rows soon will overwhelmed by passengers pushing the limits of what can fit under an airline seat. Making already-tight seating spaces even more crowded doesn't sound like a formula for pleasant flights.
It's not known whether other carriers will follow Spirit's lead, or how passengers - often charged already for everything from pillows to preferred seating - will react. But Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) has called on the U.S. Treasury Department to rule that carry-on bags are a necessary part of travel and therefore included in ticket prices.
Spirit may well discover that this idea just isn't going to fly.