Airline satisfaction: Fliers give carriers higher marks - But experts say it's too early to tell whether improvements will last
By Julie Johnsson
Copyright © 2010, Chicago Tribune
June 8, 2010
Passengers may grumble about hidden fees and lugging bags onto aircraft, but their satisfaction with airline travel improved noticeably over the past year, a new survey suggests.
After three consecutive years of declines, overall customer satisfaction with North American carriers rose by about 15 points on a 1,000-point scale, and 10 of 12 airlines studied improved their scores from 2009 levels, according to the study to be released Tuesday by J.D. Power and Associates.
Alaska and Continental airlines earned top marks from consumers among network carriers, while JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines scored best among low-cost carriers.
Two traditional carriers that have struggled in recent years saw the biggest gains in satisfaction among all airlines after they made concerted efforts to bolster operations and boost on-time departures: United Airlines' score improved 26 points, while American Airlines saw a 24-point jump from the 2009 study conducted by the California-based research firm.
But it is too early to tell whether this marks a turnaround for an industry rife with poor service or whether it is a short-term blip, experts cautioned. Rising airfares, full planes and the pending merger of United and Continental all could have negative repercussions for passengers.
"It's positive movement, but not just yet a positive story," said Stuart Greif, vice president with J.D. Power's global travel practice. (J.D. Power provided an advance copy of its survey on the condition that the results not be shared with airlines or analysts.)
Airline scores remained well below 2006 levels, when the research firm best known for its study of automobile quality first started taking a closer look at carriers, Greif said. Airlines still receive lower customer approval ratings than the insurance industry and barely score above phone companies.
The economic storm that left the airline industry in crisis last year also made flying more pleasant for passengers, according to the latest study, which measured consumers' views of everything from travel costs to aircraft cleanliness between April 2009 and April 2010.
For much of that time, fares were deeply discounted as carriers tried to lure recession-weary travelers back to the skies. Not surprisingly, the bargains passengers received strongly influenced their overall view of airline travel, for the better.
Complaints about lost or damaged bags also fell, as fewer passengers checked bags after airlines introduced, and later raised, luggage fees.
While passengers may dislike baggage fees and other new travel costs, survey results suggest they are gradually starting to accept them, Greif said.
"People adjust," added William Baker, an executive recruiter and frequent flier.
Security lines are rarely the slow-moving nightmares that were common only a couple of years ago, when passengers were still trying to figure out liquid restrictions for carry-on bags. Now, people are learning how to efficiently tote bags on board, another byproduct of the fees that airlines began to widely introduce in 2008.
"I think people have gotten more used to that drill too," Baker said. "You get off the plane, you get your car or taxi, and you're out of there. The whole luggage situation … waiting an hour for your bag, isn't there anymore."
Airlines keep testing passengers' tolerance for fees, however. The latest fee to creep into tickets is a $10 to $30 surcharge for travel during much of the summer. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wants to force airlines to do a better job of disclosing hidden charges under a proposed regulation that was unveiled last week.
"It's definitely annoying and frustrating when you think you've got a good deal and then they tack on all these fees," said airline passenger Daniel Shein as he returned to the U.S. from Israel last week.
Most of the large network carriers still have much work to do to repair the ill will they engendered over the last decade. All network carriers significantly trailed discounters JetBlue and Southwest, which led the industry in customer satisfaction, Greif said.
Despite its improved results, United still ranked second to last among its peer group, trailed only by US Airways, which also trailed all network carriers in last year's survey. Continental CEO Jeff Smisek, who is to lead the new United, faces the tough task of improving service at the Chicago-based carrier, without letting Continental's standards slip.
"When you look at Continental, there's that question of, 'Can you quickly get United up to snuff?'" Greif said. "They're headed in the right direction. But they still have a bit of a gap to make it up to Continental's level."
Continental's in-flight service was ranked No. 1 for network carriers in the survey but could take a hit in next year's results. Continental is phasing out free food in its economy-class cabin for most of its domestic flights, a step United took years ago. About 65 percent of survey respondents ranked complimentary meals as the top in-flight amenity that they would most like to have.
Delta's customer satisfaction slipped slightly as it absorbed Northwest Airlines, which it acquired in 2008, Greif said. Like United, Northwest's scores lagged industry averages, Greif added.
"There may be a little bit of turbulence," he said. "Bringing up the airlines that were not performing as well to parity is a challenge to" Continental and Delta.
Tribune reporter Daarel Burnette contributed to this report.