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Republic Air unit among best in airline hassle rankings

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Coach passengers on AMR Corp.’s American Airlines and US Airways Group Inc. jets have the greatest risk of hassles, such as late or canceled flights, packed planes and higher fees.

Those two carriers and United Airlines, a predecessor of United Continental Holdings Inc., fared the worst in a Bloomberg Rankings analysis of operating performance and service charges.

Southwest Airlines Co., which doesn’t have fees to check bags, and Frontier Airlines, a unit of Indianapolis-based Republic Airways Holdings Inc., posted the highest scores.

The analysis covered expenses such as luggage charges and rebooking fees as well as operating data like scrubbed flights and the percentage of filled seats. Cancellations are up in 2011 after East Coast storms and a new U.S. rule to end long tarmac waiting times, and a cut in flights means fewer empty seats.

“Airlines are really beginning to fill airplanes like they never have before, and Americans don’t deal well with a lack of personal space,” said Charles Leocha, director of Consumer Travel Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based not-for-profit group. “That and the complexity of fees have led to the degrading of the flying experience.”

The list evaluated the largest 10 U.S. carriers, as identified by passenger traffic on domestic flights. Regional airlines such as American’s American Eagle and Delta Air Lines Inc.’s Comair were excluded.

Southwest is the biggest discount airline and ranked second on the list for U.S. traffic, while Frontier was the smallest in the group. On a scale of one to 100, with 100 the best score, Dallas-based Southwest and Frontier logged 73.2 and 61.6 points.

The lowest scores were 31.2 for American, whose parent AMR is now in bankruptcy; 32.5 for US Airways; and 33.6 for United. All three have hubs subject to winter tie-ups, with American and United flying from Chicago and New York and US Airways from Philadelphia.

The cancellation rate for the 10 carriers Bloomberg ranked was 1.56 percent for the year ended in September, compared with 1.13 percent for the same period in 2006.

United was evaluated separately from Continental Airlines Inc., its 2010 merger partner in forming United Continental, because the airlines didn’t win U.S. approval to fly as one carrier until Nov. 30. Also assessed separately were Southwest and its May 2011 acquisition, AirTran Holdings Inc.

Many travelers are exempt from the fees covered in the Bloomberg rankings, because airlines often waive the costs for passengers with elite frequent-flier status, first- and business-class tickets, or certain co-branded credit cards.

On American, only 25 percent of domestic passengers pay a checked-bag fee, said Tim Smith, a spokesman for the Fort Worth, Texas-based airline.

American’s performance also has improved in recent years, with “more than half” of its disruptions due to circumstances outside its control such as weather or air-traffic delays, Smith said.

US Airways’ on-time performance rose 21 percent from 2007 to 2010, while baggage handling improved by 70 percent and customer satisfaction jumped 51 percent, Michelle Mohr, a spokeswoman for the Tempe, Ariz.-based carrier, said in an e-mail. The figures were based on the airline’s own data.

A pilot work slowdown that hurt results earlier this year has been corrected, placing US Airways’ operational performance on par or ahead of peers most months this year, she said.

Seat cutbacks since 2008 have in effect erased a decade of growth, according to Airlines for America, a Washington-based trade group. That has dragged industry capacity relative to U.S. Gross Domestic Product to the lowest level since 1979, according to data compiled by the trade group. American and Delta are among the airlines expecting more cuts in 2012.

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