April 8 (Reuters) - Virgin America did the best job of flying customers last year while United Airlines was the worst, though passengers experienced overall better performance, a study showed. The performance of the 14 leading carriers in 2012 was about the same as the best year ever in 2011, according to the 23rd annual national Airline Quality Rating (AQR), which ranks airlines based on U.S. Department of Transportation figures.
The industry improved in two of four areas: on-time performance and baggage handling. Involuntary denied boardings and customer complaint rated were higher, the study said.
"Every time there are more planes in the sky and more people flying, airline performance suffers," said Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University.
Virgin America had the best baggage handling rate, 0.87 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers, and American Eagle had the worst, at 5.80 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers.
Hawaiian Airlines, owned by Hawaiian Holdings Inc, was best at sticking to schedules, while Skywest Inc's ExpressJet and AMR Corp's American Airlines were the worst, the study showed.
Of Hawaiian's flights, 93.4 percent were on time. The two worst performers were 76.9 percent on time.
Customer complaints per 100,000 passengers increased from 1.19 in 2011 to 1.43 in 2012, according to the study, a joint project funded as part of faculty research activities at Wichita State and Purdue universities.
Only three of the 14 airlines improved their customer complaint rates for 2012. United Airlines, owned by United Continental Holdings Inc, had the highest complaint rate, and Southwest Airlines Co had the lowest.