An academic study says Southwest Airlines is still flying far ahead of the pack - and for the third straight year was named the nation's top airline.

Delta, the other airline with major regional hub service in Salt Lake City, finished sixth out of the 10 major national airlines rated.That's according to the annual Airline Quality Rating by the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha Aviation Institute.

The much-watched ratings evaluate airlines based on 19 factors obtained from published sources ranging from ticket cost to safety, luggage handling, on-time performance and complaint rates to the government during 1997.

The order it ranked the nation's major airlines are: 1. Southwest; 2. Alaska; 3. Continental; 4. American; 5. United; 6. Delta; 7. Northwest; 8. America West; 9. TWA; and 10. US Airways.

"While all of the major carriers increased their AQR scores in 1997, Southwest had a commanding lead," the study said.

That came, in part, by Southwest having the best on-time arrival rate (82 percent), the lowest complaint rate to the government (0.28 per 100,000 passengers) and third-best rate of mishandled baggage (39.2 per 10,000 passengers).

However, Southwest also had the second-highest rate of involuntarily denying boarding for passengers - 2.16 per 10,000 passengers.

Meanwhile, Delta dropped from fourth place last year to sixth because Alaska Airlines was added to the list of major carriers and made its debut in second place, and fast-improving Continental Airlines jumped from fifth to third. (It had been in last place as recently as 1994).

Still, the report said Delta's overall quality scores improved last year and have been steadily rising for the past three years - even though some other airlines managed to pass it.

However, "Delta performed worse in on-time arrivals and involuntary denied boardings. did post an improved baggage handling record and had fewer consumer complaints than last year," the study said.

Report co-author Dean Headley said, "The good news for the airline industry is that the overall quality rating is the highest it's been since we began this study in 1991."

However, he added, "Consumer complaints for 1997 are 20 percent higher than in 1996. Increased consumer dissatisfaction seems to indicate that how things are done is just as important as what gets done."

Fellow co-author Brent D. Bowen added, "Yes, the airlines are operationally performing better. But they are not meeting our expectations well. It is becoming more unpleasant to fly."

For example, he personally has noticed more airline employees are acting as unpleasant "baggage police" to ensure passengers do not take on too much carry-on luggage, and many of his friends report airlines are making it difficult to use frequent-flier miles.

"Airlines are not necessarily worried that much about the consumer," Headley said the rising number of complaints indicates.

The study also found that about one of every 200 checked bags are reported mishandled. The airlines that mishandled bags most often in 1997 were Alaska (71.9 per 10,000 passengers) and United (67.0). The one that mishandled them least often were America West (33.9) and Continental (37.8).

It also found that the major airlines achieved only a 77.9 percent on-time arrival record last year. The worst on-time performers were Delta (74.1 percent) and Northwest (75.1 percent). The best were Southwest (82 percent), US Airways (80.4 percent) and TWA (80.3 percent).

Complaints to the government about airlines came at a rate of 0.86 per 100,000 passengers - and represent the most egregious cases where airlines were unable themselves to satisfy customers.

The airlines with the most complaints in 1997 were America West (1.51 per 100,000 passengers), Northwest (1.39) and American (1.06). Southwest had the fewest (0.28).

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Top 10 airlines

Rank Airline Score 1996 Rank

1. Southwest .346 1

2. Alaska .112 NR

3. Continental .069 5

4. American .050 2

5. United .041 3

6. Delta .000 4

7. Northwest -.069 6

8. America West -.116 8

9. TWA -.199 9

10. US Airways -.233 7

SOURCE: Airline Quality Ratings 1998