Virgin America came out best and United Airlines the worst in a survey of US airline performance released Monday that showed passenger bumping and complaints soared last year.
The annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR) study by researchers at Purdue and Wichita State universities said that the industry's overall on-time arrival improved in 2012.
In addition, less luggage was being lost or damaged than before.
"Passengers are experiencing better performance by the airlines, although it might cost more to fly," the authors said in a statement.
But, with airlines striving to pack their aircraft more fully, the number of ticket-holders being "denied boarding" -- bumped from a flight because seats were unavailable -- was up 24 percent, to nearly one in every 10,000 passengers, they said.
And complaints to the US Department of Transportation about airlines were up 20 percent to 1.43 per every 100,000 passengers, with industry giant United Airlines by far the worst, garnering 4.24 complaints per 100,000 passengers.
Overall performance in the AQR was the second-best in the 23 years of the survey, slightly below 2011.
That reflected "commendable efforts by the industry to serve customers" in a system strained by capacity limits, said Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co-author of the report.
On average, flights arrived on time 81.8 percent of the time, compared with 80.0 percent in 2011.
Virgin America, included in the AQR for the first time, topped the 2012 performance rankings for 14 airlines based on a combination of its scores in arrival times, lost baggage, bumpings and complaints.
Runner-up was JetBlue, while Air Tran, the number one in 2011, slipped to number-three position.
At the bottom were SkyWest, ExpressJet and United, the country's largest airline since it merged with Continental Airlines in 2010.
With the merger of American Airlines and US Airways announced last month, the authors warned that more consolidation in the industry could lead to worse performance rather than better.
"Past AQR data suggests that the combining of two large air carrier operations often results in subsequent decreases in AQR rankings," said Brent Bowen, head of the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University and study co-author.