Frequent fliers say Continental Airlines is the best for long U.S. flights and America West is tops for short ones.

That's according to a study, released Wednesday by J.D. Power and Associates and Frequent Flyer magazine, based on 7,000 flight evaluations by frequent fliers who on average make more than 25 domestic round trips each year.J.D. Power and Associates is well-known for similar studies with new car owners on how they rank their vehicles and for similar studies on hotel guest satisfaction and rental-car customer satisfaction.

For the two airlines with the most flights from Salt Lake International Airport, Delta and Southwest tied for fourth best among the nine major airlines for short flights of less than 500 miles.

Southwest also tied for fourth best in long flights. Delta, however, was among four airlines that had "below average" ratings in that category. Exactly in what order those four ranked was not released.

Findings of the new study vary greatly from the Airline Quality Rating released last month by Wichita State University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, which ranked airlines based on 19 factors obtained from published sources, ranging from ticket cost and safety to on-time performance and complaint rates.

That academic study ranked Southwest the best by far. Delta was fourth. Continental finished fifth in that study, and America West finished eighth out of nine.

The new J.D. Powers study used a different method, asking randomly selected frequent fliers about numerous services. They were asked which were most important to them and asked to rank their recent flights.

The study said factors driving satisfaction, based on their percent contribution to overall enjoyment, were on-time performance (22 percent); convenient schedules (15 percent); quick airport check-in (15 percent); seating comfort (12 percent); gate location (9 percent); aircraft interior (7 percent); flight attendants (6 percent); food service (5 percent); post-flight services (5 percent), and frequent flier programs (4 percent).

Continental finished best for long flights for the second consecutive year, which Power attributed "to its superior performance in areas most important to customer satisfaction, including on-time performance, schedule/flight accommodations and airport check-in."

While it was Continental's second first-place ranking, it had been ranked worst in 1995 - and became the first airline to go from worst to first in a single year.

"We are most proud of this unprecedented recognition by the traveling public," said Continental Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Gordon Bethune. "Our team is incredibly focused on providing what customers desire most: consistent, quality service."

Power said America West's top ranking among short-flight passengers comes from "its above-average ratings in nine of the 10 factors that impact customer satisfaction, and particular strengths in on-time performance, schedule/flight accommodations, seating comfort, gate location and frequent flier programs."

America West Chairman William A. Franke said, "It goes without saying that the people who fly us the most know us best, and they recognize the product and performance improvements America West achieved in 1996."

The new study also released the top three airlines (but not their exact order) in 16 different categories - and Continental finished among the top three in all of them. Ironically, America West did not finish in the top three in any despite its top ranking overall for short flights.

Delta finished among the top three in seven categories: helpfulness of reservation agents, ability to get priority boarding, seating comfort, flight attendants, connecting flight information, airport lounges and overall satisfaction with airport activities.

Southwest finished among the top three in six categories: flight schedules, helpfulness of reservation agents, communication to passengers about delays, flight attendants, overall in-flight satisfaction and speed of baggage delivery.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Top airlines

Top airlines for long flights

1. Continental

2. TWA

3. United

4. American, Southwest (tie)

Ranking below average (in alphabetical order):

America West, Delta, Northwest, US Airways.

Top airlines for short flights

1. America West

2. Continental

3. US Airways

4. Delta, Southwest (tie)

Ranking below average (in alphabetical order): American, Northwest, United. TWA was not ranked in that category due to an insufficient sample size.

Source: J.D. Power and Associates and Frequent Flyer magazine.