This year's

Airline Quality Survey

shows that passengers are more dissatisfied than ever and the concept of "airline quality" is still elusive.

The study's authors, Dean Headley of

Wichita State University

, and Brent Bowen of the

University of Nebraska

at Omaha, tried to quantify elements of the passenger flying experience on the ten major airlines, ranking the airlines from best to worst.

This year,

Southwest Airlines

(LUV) - Get Report

took top honors, with

United Air Lines

(UAL) - Get Report

bringing up the rear.

In announcing the study earlier this month, Bowen was pessimistic. "I don't see any evidence that the airlines are going to turn this situation around in the next two quarters. I think we are to the point where some type of limited re-regulation may be necessary, because the airlines have not handled it on their own."

Now, readers of this column know I will be the first one to jump up and pounce on an airline that provides poor passenger service. Case in point: the

America West Airlines

of

America West Holdings

(AWA)

. A recent column about the ongoing problems at America West prompted a tremendous number of emails from readers who had suffered canceled flights, late flights, or other such inconveniences with the Phoenix-based airline.

Yes, make no mistake about it. We have a very low tolerance for airlines that routinely and continually treat passengers in a way that indicates management does not have a clue as to what the word "service" means.

However, we also have a problem with flawed research.

The information upon which this study is based is the same

Department of Transportation

Airline Consumer Travel Report that I review every month. Granted, these statistics are useful. I especially like to use the data to spot trends. In the case of America West, for instance, the chronic problems passengers have been experiencing with the airline have been reflected month after month in the DOT stats.

Applying those trends to the financial situation of the airline can be revealing.

With America West, for example, these passenger problems led to an increase in the cost per available seat mile and decreased revenue for the first quarter -- something that is of particular interest to investors.

However, the DOT stats are problematic in a number of ways.

First of all, the DOT passenger complaint stats are based on complaints received by the DOT.

Now, when was the last time YOU filed a complaint to the DOT?

My point exactly.

This study is based wholly on complaints. Oh, it is based on on-time performance stats, baggage handling stats, and other information as well. But in my mind, the report lacks the most crucial information: actual passenger feedback and input, not just passenger complaints.

The other point the researchers miss in their analyses of the increase in the number of complaints is obvious -- it is much easier to lodge a complaint to the DOT today than it was just a year ago. How come? Because more than one Web site has sprung up, based solely on the idea of making it simple to lodge a complaint to the DOT.

Yes, complaining about that surly flight attendant who reminded you of

Attila the Hun

is now as easy as click, write, send. Gone. Granted, the percentage of complaints lodged against the carriers is up substantially. But that figure overlooks the fact that the raw numbers of complaints lodged against the ten major carriers is pretty darn puny. For example, in February, America West posted the highest number of complaints, as a percentage of passengers. How many complaints earned it that recognition? Just 140 complaints for 1,437,764 different boardings.

Another thing caught my eye in the study -- this comment at the beginning: "Weights

for the 14 elements considered in the rankings were established by surveying 65 airline industry experts regarding their opinion as to what consumers would rate as important in judging airline quality."

First of all, I often doubt whether airline executives -- much less industry experts -- understand what passengers want, or what it is they value the most.

But, instead of asking passengers directly what they find most important (a survey of that size might cost a lot of money?), they had 65 industry experts determine what is most important.

Nope. Ask the people like our readers who schlep bags through those darn X-ray machines as many as three or four times a week.

Look in this space soon for our own

Traveling with Wings

passenger survey. Let's see what the priorities are for you -- as compared with the list of those "industry experts."

Holly Hegeman, based in Barrington, Rhode Island, pilots the Wing Tips column for TheStreet.com. At time of publication, Hegeman held no positions in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. You can usually find Hegeman, publisher of PlaneBusiness Banter, buzzing around her airline industry Web site at

www.planebusiness.com. While she cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, she welcomes your feedback at

hhegeman@planebusiness.com.