Hawaiian Airlines topped an annual quality study of U.S. air carriers as the industry took some of the hassle out of flying last year and delivered its best performance in four years.

The improvement came just a year after airlines earned their worst marks for passenger complaints in more than a decade.

Right behind Hawaiian in the overall ratings of 17 airlines were AirTran Airways and JetBlue Airways, according to a study based on government statistics that was released Monday by private researchers.

The legacy airlines — AMR Corp.’s American, Continental, Delta and UAL Corp.’s United — were clustered in the middle, while regional air carriers filled out the bottom rungs.

The airline industry flew fewer people in 2008 but treated them better, arriving on time more often and losing fewer bags. Passengers also were not as apt to be bumped from flights by overbooking, which was a big problem when airlines were running at or over capacity.

The downside: Fewer flights, higher prices — some airlines now charge extra for any luggage — and fewer frills.

The study found consumer complaints dipped from 1.42 per 100,000 passengers in 2007 to 1.15 in 2008. Southwest Airlines had the best rate, only 0.25 complaints per 100,000 passengers; US Airways had the worst rate, 2.25.

Half of all complaints involved baggage or flight problems such as cancellations, delays or other schedule deviations.

The average on-time performance last year was three percentage points better than the year before, yet nearly one-quarter of all flights were late. The study said 12 airlines improved from the previous year but only three airlines had better than an 80 per cent on-time rate: Hawaiian, 90 per cent; Southwest, 80.5 per cent; and US Airways, 80.1 per cent.

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