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Customers Hate Airlines--Who Knew?

Seniors on the Go
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on June 30, 2011. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, Seniors on the Go, senior travel.

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'Airlines earn lousy grades for customer service.' If that headline surprises you, you must have just arrived from another planet. Airlines are near the top of just about everybody's hate list, and for good reason. That fact, in itself, doesn't help you much in deciding which airline to take on your next trip. But it may provide some useful clues about the future.

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The most recent headlines came from the impeccably credentialed folks at American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), who have been studying consumer satisfaction across a broad spectrum of American industries since 1994. The June report covers full-service restaurants, hotels, limited-service restaurants, airlines, and express delivery services. And this year's results aren't good for the airlines: As a group, they scored 65 on a scale of 100, compared with scores of 77 to 84 for the other industry segments. Even the Post Office, at 74, outscored the airlines. ACSI notes that, for the year, airlines tied newspapers for the lowest scores among all 47 industries studied.

As is often the case, individual airline scores showed a sizable variation. Southwest, at 81, earned top spot, and the 'all others' category, which includes mainly smaller lines, came in second at a respectable 76. But the 'big five' legacy lines didn't do so well: American, Continental, United, and US Airways were bunched at 61 to 64, and Delta brought up the bottom with a dismal 56.

These figures should come as no surprise. Just about every similar scoring puts Southwest, along with 'other' lines Alaska, JetBlue, and Virgin America, well ahead of the big five. By now, you should have seen the picture: If you have a choice, you'll probably have a better experience on a high-scoring line than on one of the bottom feeders.

But the comparisons with other industries reveal something else about air travel. Overall, as I've been saying for years, even if nothing goes wrong, flying in coach/economy class is generally a miserable experience—high miserable on the better lines, low miserable on the rest. But year after year most of you put up with it: You grumble, you grouse, you complain, but you don't change your buying behavior. And I believe that's because you buy air travel in a fundamentally different way from the way you buy other products and services. Think a minute—is there any other important marketplace where you search so diligently for the cheapest available option, without regard to quality? Certainly not with other travel services: You don't all stay at Motel 6, for example, and you don't all rent Chevrolet Aveos. In other segments, you recognize the value of something better than rock bottom. But I propose a reason for the difference in approach. Providing you with a minimally acceptable coach seat would increase an airline's cost by about 40 percent per ticket. Even worse, airlines that actually do provide those seats—in premium economy—typically charge double the cheapest fare. And, for most of you, flying in a comfortable seat for five or six hours just isn't worth an extra $400 or so. That's the hard fact—and the reason you can't expect any improvements any time soon.

Now let's look briefly at the other travel-related scores:

  • The overall hotel group scored 77, with comparatively little variation from top (Hilton at 80 and Marriott and Starwood at 79) to bottom (Choice at 74 and Wyndham at 73). The ACSI release doesn't indicate any special insights other than 'you get what you pay for.' The higher end chains earned the top scores.
  • Full-service restaurants did well, overall, at an aggregate 81, with comparatively little variation from top ('All others,' probably meaning nonchain outfits, Olive Garden, and stablemate Red Lobster at 82) to bottom (Outback Steakhouse at 81 and Chili's at 79). My guess is that variation isn't statistically significant—you like them all.
  • Fast food did almost as well, with an average of 79, but wider variation from Pizza Hut, Little Caesar's, and Starbuck's at 80 to 81 to McDonald's at 72. Even at 72, however, McDonald's beat the big five airlines.

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