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New Airline Developments Lead to Unsatisfied Customers

American Airlines is the latest convert to the airlines’ current gimmick du jour: new bundles of formerly free features that it thinks it can sell you. American’s Your Choice bundle consists of early boarding—just after high-ranking frequent flyers—plus the ability to change a nonrefundable ticket for $75, half the usual fee, and the ability to stand by for other flights on your ticketed travel day without paying the usual fee. The Your Choice option costs between $9 to $19 each way, depending on trip distance.

The main everyday benefit is early boarding: Now that most airlines are charging for checked baggage, early boarding means you’re much more likely to find available space in the overhead bin for your carry-on than if you wait. Whether you’d ever use the other options depends on how frequently you travel and how much flexibility you require.{{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}Similar deals are available from two other big lines:

  • Southwest: early boarding, $10 each way.
  • United: Premier Line priority check-in, security, and boarding, starting at $19 each way.

So far, United still offers the longest list of extra bundles: Travel Options by United package components range from priority boarding to extra-legroom seating, entry to a Red Carpet airport lounge club, and a yearly charge for checking two bags on every flight, available in several combinations.

Although the individual programs differ, the airlines’ basic objective is the same: Get you to pay for something that adds nothing to their costs, but instead brings in more revenue by giving you some important priorities over those who don’t pay extra. The winners in this deal are obviously the airlines that rake in extra cash; the losers are travelers who don’t buy into the extras. This concept has to appeal mightily to airline treasurers, which means you can be sure other airlines will copy these practices.

According to an old joke, when a reporter asked the old-time Hollywood producer how business was, he replied, “Colossal—but it’s improving.” That’s the gist of this year’s American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) results. Although airline scores are up a bit, they’re still at a level of customer satisfaction that would be a cause for panic in any other industry:

  • The overall average satisfaction score for seven named airlines plus an “all other” category stands at 66 on a scale of 100, up slightly from a low of 62 in 2008, but well below the pre-1997 baseline score of 72.
  • Southwest, at 79, continues its 15-year run as top airline.
  • “All others” follow, at 75, with Continental scoring well at 71.
  • American, Delta, US Airways, Northwest (now part of Delta), and United are closely bunched at the bottom of the range, with scores of 60 to 63.

Although the spread between top and bottom scores is substantial, airlines in general fare poorly. The composite scores among other industries tabulated in this report are 81 for full-service restaurants, 75 for limited-service restaurants, 75 for hotels, and 83 for express delivery services. Even the U.S. Postal Service, at 71, outscored the airline composite. No individual company in these other markets scored as low as the airline composite, and no other companies came even close to United’s dismal 60.

The ACSI investigators went on to note that improved satisfaction is unlikely to continue. Airlines are beginning to charge higher fares, flights are becoming more crowded, and the increasing number of carry-on bags will likely lead to cabin congestion and delays, all of which contribute to lower satisfaction scores. Also the trend toward charging for checked baggage is likely to drag future scores to lower levels. And they added that the potential merger between low-scoring United and higher-scoring Continental is likely to mean bad news for Continental customers.

Although not reported separately in ACSI, other sources indicate that the smaller lines—notably JetBlue and Virgin America—tend to outscore their larger competitors in pleasing customers. Nevertheless, the ultimate message from these results is “things are bad, and they won’t get better any time soon. Get used to it.”

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