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New Survey Says Airlines Are Improving (But Not By Much)

Another new survey ranks JetBlue and Southwest as best in the industry for customer service. Nobody should be surprised: The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) results track very closely with those published in last weeks J.D. Power and Associates report.

But there's one major difference between the two surveys: In the J.D. Power survey, airlines' satisfaction scores as a whole went down a bit compared to last year, while in the ACSI survey the airlines' scores rose a bit. But the difference is a small one, and it's probably not statistically significant. In previous ACSI studies, as in this one, even though airlines may have gained a few points, the airline group overall still ranks near the bottom of the 47 industry groups in the study.

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By now, some conclusions must be evident both to travelers and the airlines. First, JetBlue offers the best economy-class product in the domestic skies. Other low-fare or low-cost airlines also generally score better than the giant legacy or network airlines (such as American or US Airways). Among those legacy airlines, Alaska is probably the best of the lot.

Travelers really like the idea of no charge for checked baggage—you get one free checked bag on JetBlue; two on Southwest. The big legacy airlines know that travelers hate baggage charges, but they don't really care. They're hooked on baggage fees and aren't likely to eliminate those fees anytime soon, if ever.

The legacy carriers really have no incentive to improve their economy services. They know that most leisure travelers and many business travelers buy by price and schedule, not product quality. Similarly, they have little incentive to improve even their domestic first-class cabins, where—according to industry legend—they fill some 90 percent of seats by upgrading high-ranking frequent travelers on economy tickets. Instead, they focus almost entirely on tweaking their international business-class offerings, providing lie-flat seats, gourmet food, and fine wines at astronomical prices.

The smaller low-fare lines, which do not compete in the arena of intercontinental business class, are able to pay more attention to their typical one-class economy products if they choose to do so. That's a major reason why at least some of them are better.

The net result: Travelers can't expect to see any significant improvements in the legacy airlines' main cabins over the next few years—if ever. Product innovations, if any, will most likely come from JetBlue, Virgin America, Frontier, and other similar carriers.

Are you satisfied with airline performance?

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