The airline system in America is flying about the same number of flights that it did way back a decade ago.

It is flying almost nine percent fewer flights than it was in 2007, the peak of air travel in the US as measured by numbers of flights. However, airlines are still struggling with baggage service and on-time arrivals.

The Airline Quality Rating (view full report here) that was released early last month had some good news for airlines — overall airline quality was up. Passenger complaints were down and denied boardings were down. However, more luggage was lost per 1,000 passengers and even with fewer flights in the air than a decade ago, more flights were delayed.

More luggage is being lost
Let’s take a look at Mishandled-Baggage Reports Filed by Passengers with the Largest U.S. Air Carriers. These are carriers that fly “at least 1 percent of the total domestic scheduled service passenger revenues and those carriers that report voluntarily.”

Since the airlines have instituted their checked baggage charges back in 2008, the number of “mishandled baggage” has dropped from 7.05 lost bags per 1,000 passengers to 3.22 lost bags per 1,000 passengers. This appears to be a significant improvement in baggage handling by the airlines.

However, this statistic is terribly misleading. Note the numbers reported by the government’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics is based on baggage lost per 1,000 of passengers; NOT on the number of checked bags. Since the number of checked bags has decreased dramatically per 1,000 passengers after airlines started to charge for checked luggage, the number of lost bags per 1,000 passengers will naturally drop. This statistic is perhaps the best indicator (within 5 percent or so) of the decrease in checked baggage assuming a more-or-less steady baggage mishandling rate.

The lost luggage rate for the period 1997-2006 had a lost luggage rate average of 5.14 per 1,000 passengers. In 2013 the lost luggage rate was 3.22 per 1,000 enplaned passengers. That would suggest that passengers are checking about 37 percent fewer bags today than they were back in 2008.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has filed a rulemaking to change the way lost luggage is calculated from 1,000s of passengers to number of bags checked. Travelers United (formerly Consumer Travel Alliance) participated in department roundtables and filed comments in support of changing lost luggage reporting. However, after years, that new rule has not been completed.

The year-to-year comparisons are not good for airlines. From 2012 to 2013 lost luggage rates have increased almost five percent. So after the dramatic drop caused by imposition of checked baggage charges, it appears that the airlines are slipping in their baggage handling.

On-time performance is down year-over-year
The other area of concern in this report is the on-time performance. With fewer operations than back in 2007 and therefor less stress on the system, airlines in 2013 had a worse on-time performance than in 2012. This figure is concerning, since the overwhelming legacy carrier service is based on hub-and-spoke networks where on-time flights are critical.

Plus, with planes flying at capacity levels in the upper 80 percents, when passengers are misconnected, the consequences can be dramatic, with additional delays of significant hours and days in some some cases.

Passenger complaints are down according to the report
It seems that passengers are resigned to bad service. Note: The complaints only include those filed with DOT, not those filed with each individual airline.

A report that characterizes the system as improving still shows significant problems to be overcome. And when the number of flights in the system begins to return to 2007/2008 levels, the need for a new and functioning air traffic system will be more necessary than ever.