The world is huge

Don't miss any of it

Travel news, itineraries, and inspiration delivered straight to your inbox.

By proceeding, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.


Are Consumers to Blame for Poor Airline Service?

J.D. Power and Associates, an outfit that specializes in naming “bests” in consumer satisfaction, just announced its latest “best” airlines and other travel suppliers. And by now you shouldn’t be surprised to see JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin America as the three top winners.

In a separate survey, another consumer satisfaction specialist, Satmetrix, also just named JetBlue and Virgin America as tops. These results are becoming routine, as are the placements of the big legacy lines—American, Delta, and United—in varying order but always near the bottom.

Top ratings for these three lines are fascinating because each line rates “best in the business” for a different reason:

  • JetBlue provides the best overall product in the air—regular seats provide as much legroom as extra-cost Economy Plus on United, and its Even More Space seats outdo first-class legroom on most domestic lines. Also big pluses: No charge for a first checked bag and above-average in-flight entertainment systems.
  • Southwest is the champ at keeping fees low. What’s not to like about two checked bags at no extra charge and no charge for exchanging a ticket? Southwest is also the only line that still offers practical fares for seniors 65 or over—they aren’t Southwest’s cheapest, but they’re well below the best any-age fares that don’t require advance purchase.
  • Virgin America has the best cluster of high-tech in-flight amenities and features. And nobody beats Sir Richard Branson at turning hype into a business.

As I’ve noted before, in more cases than not, airline customer-satisfaction ratings are really tie-breakers. For most of you, schedules, fares, and frequent-flyer considerations are what really matters when you choose an airline. “Quality” factors come into play only when you have a choice and when fares, schedules, and benefits on different lines are roughly equal.

To me, the consistently low rating for the giant legacy airlines is symptomatic of the way their managements regard the business. These days, most industry mavens I know take the position that the main purpose of the legacy lines’ domestic networks, which often lose money, is to feed their “profitable” international flights—and especially to rake in the ultra-expensive business-class fares that make up a big part of long-haul air travel. Given that mind-set, they don’t really try to put out a good product in domestic coach, and such customer loyalty as they enjoy they retain through corporate discounts and judicious doling out of upgrades.

To an extent, consumers must share a lot of the blame for lousy economy-class service: You’ve shown you’ll put up with a really bad product to knock a few bucks off the price you pay, so the big airlines have almost no incentive to improve the product. The focus is in stuffing more seats into the cabins and getting more and more fees. “You want lousy; we’ll give you lousy.”

Fortunately, the three high-rating lines—along with a few other smaller ones—don’t have any “profitable long-haul international routes” to feed, so they’re forced to try to do a better job in the domestic market. Clearly, then, your best bet is to give those folks your business when you can.

J.D. Power’s results for hotels are also generally as expected: That high-end Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons top the lists shouldn’t surprise anyone. Among the lesser brands, Indigo, Drury Inn, and Hampton are winners. Satmetrix participants favored Marriott and Hilton.

And to round out the results, Enterprise and Ace rated high among car renters. Enterprise is no surprise: Its “take any car” campaign is clearly attractive, especially to frequent renters. Ace—a much smaller company—is a bit of a surprise to me; I’ve never rented from Ace, but people who do obviously like it.

Neither rating company releases as much detail as I’d like to see, but that’s their business system: Release tip-of-the-iceberg numbers to the public, but sell the details—the really good stuff—to the companies in the industry. But you can use those overall numbers as pretty good guides.

You Might Also Like:

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

We hand-pick everything we recommend and select items through testing and reviews. Some products are sent to us free of charge with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions and do not accept compensation to review products. All items are in stock and prices are accurate at the time of publication. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

Top Fares From