Airline Satisfaction Scores Drop

That headline—or something like it—was all over the business news today, and my main thought was: "Does that surprise anybody?" Laundry lists of fees, seats too small to accommodate today's adults, crammed overhead bins, and long lines at security, check-in, and boarding: what's to like about air travel these days?

The surprise is that the ratings are still as high as they are. Overall passenger satisfaction has declined only two points since last year, from 683 in 2011 to 681 this year (based on a 1,000-point scale).

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The current results are the latest airline scores from J.D. Power and Associates, the big market research outfit that periodically reports on consumer satisfaction. Survey-based scores rate airlines on cost and fees; in-flight services; boarding, deplaning, and baggage; flight crew; aircraft; check-in; and reservations, in that order of importance. Among the key findings:

  • JetBlue earned the highest score, closely followed by Southwest.
  • All five of the low-cost carriers included in the survey—JetBlue, Southwest, WestJet, AirTran, and Frontier—outscored even the top-scoring network carrier, Alaska. Presumably, if included, Virgin America would have scored well. Allegiant and Spirit? Maybe not so well.
  • Among the network airlines, after Alaska, the others ranked, from the top down: Air Canada, Delta, Continental (still separate much of last year), American, United, and US Airways.
  • J.D. Power's report concluded that "baggage fees are a customer sore point;" this is one of the reasons for the high ratings for the two airlines—JetBlue and Southwest—that don't charge for first checked bags.

All in all, these results confirm what a lot of airline watchers have been saying for some time: JetBlue has the best coach product in the sky right now, no-fee checked bag policies have gained a lot of market traction, and Alaska is the best of the lot.

Some reports focus on the fact that aggregate scores for this year are a bit down from last year, and Delta was the only line to show an improvement. But the differences are slight—and maybe not even statistically significant. In essence, this year's survey springs no surprises.

Perhaps the most discouraging element in this whole scene is that the outlook for improvements is extremely dim. Air travelers have proved, over and over again, that although they complain about today's lousy standards, most aren't willing to pay more for anything better. As long as "lowest fare, no matter what" remains the mantra for a majority of today's flyers, they can look forward to more of the same with very little chance for better.

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