Survey: Passengers are happier with airlines

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Overall consumer satisfaction with North American airlines is on the ascent, reversing three consecutive years of declines, according to J.D. Power and Associates.

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Overall consumer satisfaction with North American airlines is on the ascent, reversing three consecutive years of declines, according to J.D. Power and Associates.

A survey released by the group Tuesday showed passenger satisfaction in the past year rose to a three-year high of 673 on a 1,000-point scale, up 15 points from 2009.

Among the network airlines, Alaska Air Group Inc.’s Alaska Airlines ranked highest for the third consecutive year, with a score of 699, compared with 671 in 2009. JetBlue Airways Corp. led the low-cost carriers for the fifth consecutive year, with a score of 764, up from 750 in 2009, J.D. Power said.

The spread between network carriers and discount airlines has continued to widen, with the low-cost carriers routinely producing better scores in J.D. Power’s annual ranking. The latest survey results were based on interviews with 12,300 passengers who flew on a major North American carrier from April 2009 through April of this year. But both groups made improvements in the latest poll.

Stuart Greif, vice president of the global travel practice at J.D. Power, said that may reflect that passengers aren’t marking down the airlines as much as they once did for proliferation of fees airlines are adding for everything from checked luggage to food to desirable seat assignments. But the three discount carriers that did the best in their category don’t charge for the first checked bag, he noted, leading to higher customer satisfaction.

Some of the same macroeconomic conditions that adversely affected the carriers’ finances in the past year—including lower fares—led to improvements in customer satisfaction in the latest poll. And as more carriers charge fees for checked bags, fewer passengers are choosing to do so, reducing the number of baggage issues and complaints, J.D. Power said.

Among the network carriers, Continental Airlines Inc. came in second, with a score of 672, a slight improvement over 2009. AMR Corp.’s American Airlines was next with a much improved score of 642, followed by Delta Air Lines Inc. with 640. Air Canada had a score of 636; UAL Corp.’s United Airlines 630 and US Airways Group Inc. 613. All but Delta showed improved scores from 2009.

After JetBlue in the discount-carrier group, Southwest Airlines Co. came in second with 742 points, followed by WestJet Airlines Ltd. of Canada with 740 points. AirTran Holdings Inc.’s AirTran Airways turned in a 704 score, followed by Republic Airways Holdings Inc.’s Frontier Airlines, with 688. All of the discounters showed small improvements over their 2009 scores.

On the topic of the ancillary fees, Mr. Greif said, six in 10 passengers on discount airlines think the prices are reasonable. But only four in 10 passengers on network carriers feel the same way. Business travelers “are harsher critics,” he said.

The polling measures overall customer satisfaction on airlines’ performance in seven measures. In order of importance, they are: cost and fees; flight crews; inflight services; aircraft; boarding, deplaning and baggage; check-in; and reservations. Discount carriers tend to outperform their network rivals because they rank better in the cost and fees category, Mr. Greif said.

J.D. Power, a unit of McGraw-Hill Companies, has been polling consumers in a number of industries for 40 years. It began the North American airline survey in 2005, but doesn’t rate consumer impressions of carriers in Europe and Asia.

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.