There’s constant grumbling among frequent fliers about the level of service provided by various airlines. Lost luggage, limited carry-ons, baggage fees, flight delays and cancellations, passengers getting bumped from flights…let’s face it, the crappy food is the least of the frequent inconveniences that affect air travel. Nonetheless, some airlines have higher degrees of customer satisfaction than others. For 18 years, Southwest Airlines has had the highest level of passenger satisfaction (friendly, humorous flight attendants go a long way). In 2012, Southwest loses this laurel. For the first time, JetBlue Airways has the highest level of passenger happiness in the afflicted industry. That’s right: Jet Blue is the best airline in terms of customer satisfaction this year!
The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) is a national economic indicator of customer satisfaction across a number of metrics, including airlines, hotels, restaurants and more; 47 industries and over 100 programs and services are measured for their clients’ happiness with their products annually. Data is collected from interviews with around 70,000 customers in the United States. ACSI is a reliable economic indicator; over the course of ACSI’s released ratings, travel industry experts have seen it as predicting what to expect economically for measured industries as the next year unfolds. Now, airlines gained 3.1% overall in terms of customer satisfaction for 2012, but the airline industry as a whole remained in the bottom three of the 47 ranked businesses (joining subscription TV service and, lowest of all, the newspaper industry). So keep in mind that although JetBlue Airways made gains in terms of passenger satisfaction, it’s now the highest rated of a basically maligned industry in general.
Airline Industry Customer Satisfaction 2012
- The airline industry improves 3.1% to 67 on ACSI’s 100-point scale. It’s the highest score for the industry in ten years, but airlines still score among the lowest in all of ACSI, just ahead of the cable companies and subscription television service (66) and newspapers (64).
- JetBlue Airways debuts at the top of the industry with a score of 81, pushing Southwest Airlines (-5% to 77) from its 18-year run as the highest scoring airline to second place.
- Southwest’s decline can be attributed to its merger with AirTran. Mergers tend to create significant passenger dissatisfaction in the short term as operations are combined and consolidated.
- Though satisfaction is up, customers have themselves to thank more than the airlines. Customers hate fees and passengers who pay to check bags are significantly less satisfied with airlines than those who do not (ACSI score of 62 compared to 73). Because less people are checking bags (a 20% decline from a year), overall industry satisfaction has risen.
- Satisfaction with frequent business travelers improves from 61 a year ago to 66, but this is still well behind the satisfaction of leisure travelers (71).
Four Points of Discussion
1. I asked David VanAmberg, Director of the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a couple of questions related to current hot topics among family travelers.
How do you predict airline satisfaction will trend now that many are making passengers pay extra for window and aisle seats?
Any extra cost that is not associated with what passengers perceive to be an enhancement to the flying experience will likely have a negative impact on airline satisfaction. Many customers are willing to pay higher prices and be even more satisfied if they feel they are getting something new and/or better for the price, but simply charging extra for something that previously did not have additional cost attached to it will leave air travelers grumbling.
How do you see this affecting families who travel with young children?
In general we would expect to see this dampening satisfaction for families with young children who try to reserve adjoining seats; however, since families typically travel less often as a group, for an annual vacation trip for instance, it’s likely to have a bigger effect on the more frequent traveler.
2. Thanks, David. Now, I didn’t ask him about his predictions regarding airline customer satisfaction in terms of pets in the main cabin and passengers with fur allergies, but this could well become a growing issue as well. More and more pet owners are reluctant to stow their cats and dogs, but as airlines accommodate them (for a fee), passengers who are allergic to fur could suffer. Nothing brings down passenger satisfaction like a full-blown asthma attack mid-flight.
3. While Southwest Airlines was beaten by Jet Blue this year, its ACSI customer satisfaction rating may rebound next year; passengers often suffer during transitional acquisition years, and AirTrans merging with Southwest has a lot to do with the latter’s drop in overall satisfaction. Last year, Delta Airlines’ score took a nose dive (bad pun?) after it had growing pains regarding its merger with Northwest, and it rebounded by 16% this year.
4. Anecdotally, I have always enjoyed my flying experiences on JetBlue Airways and Southwest more (far and away more) than any other airline except Virgin. JetBlue and Southwest share a similar ethos in terms of friendly service and inflight treatment of passengers. The flight crews deserve — and hopefully, get — a lot of credit for their professional personas. This goes a long way in terms of post-trip feelings about the overall air travel experience.
Airline Customer Satisfaction Summary
Many airlines are struggling. Some operate at a deficit each year. It’s easy to get angry (and deservedly so) with each nickel-and-diming move the airlines make — like hiding taxes and fees when they list air fare costs, adding fees for aisle and window seat choices, and charging fees for checked luggage. But customer satisfaction must remain at least part of the equation, and the lip service provided by company reps goes only so far in terms of assuaging the bad feelings passengers have after lousy flight experiences. What’s the answer? As long as fuel remains so expensive, it’s hard to say. But my hybrid car is looking better and better…and so is JetBlue Airways.