It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. So, which is it?
If you were to judge from the recent torrent of scathing media coverage and intense government scrutiny, you’d think that the airline industry was in the business of torturing travelers, rather than transporting them.
Nevertheless, the latest edition of the American Customer Satisfaction Index, published last month, found that a measure of travelers’ overall satisfaction with the airlines had increased 4.2 percentage points year-over-year.
And today, J.D. Power released its 2017 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, which also found that flyers were more, not less, satisfied with the airlines.
According to a J.D. Power statement accompanying the report:
It’s impossible to think about airline customer satisfaction without replaying the recent images of a passenger being dragged from a seat, but our data shows that, as a whole, the airline industry has been making marked improvements in customer satisfaction across a variety of metrics, from ticket cost to flight crew.
In fact, the latest J.D. Power study found that overall satisfaction has risen to its highest level ever.
For the industry as a whole, the satisfaction score increased to 756 on a 1,000-point scale, from 726 last year. Traditional carriers as a group scored 740, and low-cost airlines did somewhat better with a 784 score.
In the traditional airline group, the individual scoring was as follows:
- Alaska – 765
- Delta – 758
- American – 736
- United – 716
- Air Canada – 709
And for the low-cost carriers:
- Southwest – 807
- JetBlue – 803
- WestJet – 736
- Frontier – 663
The individual scores aren’t likely to raise many eyebrows. Alaska and Southwest have well established reputations for solid customer service. Less fathomable, however, is the trend itself, and the takeaway: Things have never been better. Really?
The J.D. Power scores reflect airline performance in these seven areas, from most to least important: cost and fees; in-flight services; aircraft; boarding/deplaning/baggage; flight crew; check-in; and reservations.
It’s true that, on an inflation-adjusted basis, average airfares are low ($349 according to the report), and have been trending lower over the long term. So assigning cost the heaviest weight in the scoring disproportionately improves the overall scores. It’s also true that consumers have proven themselves to be overwhelmingly price-driven, as the success of Spirit Airlines attests. But cheap flights hardly guarantee a high level of customer satisfaction, a fact borne out by Spirit’s poor marks in other studies.
In short, there appears to be a disconnect between customer satisfaction as measured by these studies and customer satisfaction in the real world. My working theory is that the alleged improvements have less to do with anything the airlines are doing better and more to do with a lowering of the bar: As services deteriorate, consumers lower their expectations, and satisfaction scores rise.
The airlines, in other words, have trained consumers to accept shoddier and shoddier service in exchange for cheaper airfares. But cheaper isn’t necessarily better; it’s just cheaper.
Reader Reality Check
Things have never been better for air travelers. True or false?
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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.
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