Airline satisfaction hits all-time high – still trails rental cars, mortgage lenders

Customer satisfaction with the airline industry has hit an all-time high over the past year, according to a study from J.D. Power and Associates. Alaska Airlines and JetBlue got the top scores for customer satisfaction, while US Airways and Frontier Airlines received the lowest. 

Fred Prouser/Reuters/File
JetBlue Airways aircraft are pictured at departure gates at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. JetBlue topped J.D. Power's customer satisfaction ratings for low-cost carriers for the ninth-straight year. Alaska Airlines topped the rankings for traditional carriers.

At first glance, 2014 thus far has been a lousy year to fly, with terrible winter forcing flight cancellations and stranded travelers across the country. Passengers, however, aren’t blaming the airlines.

Customer happiness with airline carriers reached an all-time high over the past year, according to the 2014 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, released annually by J.D. Power and Associates. But the celebration should be tempered: Despite steady improvements, air travel still trails several other industries in satisfaction ratings, including hotels, rental cars, and even credit card companies and mortgage lenders. 

The least surprising part of the study was the air carriers customers love the most. Alaska Airlines topped the satisfaction rankings for “traditional airlines” for the seventh consecutive year, scoring 737 points out of a possible 1,000 and improving 20 points over its 2013 score. Delta Air Lines came in second, with 693 points, and American Airlines ranked third, with 684.

Among low-cost carriers, JetBlue came out on top for the ninth straight year, despite being affected far more than other airlines by the severity of this past winter. Southwest Airlines came in second.

The worst-performing carriers were US Airways with 656 points (traditional) and Frontier Airlines with 676 (low-cost).

The study, which tracked survey responses from 11,370 passengers between April 2013 and March 2014, evaluates airlines and the industry overall based on seven categories: cost and fees, in-flight services, boarding/deplaning/baggage, flight crew, aircraft, check-in, and reservation. On a scale of 1,000, the airline industry in the United States and Canada scored a 712 – a 17-point increase from 2013.

Much of the improvement came from the “cost and fees” category, which improved to 642 in 2014 from 618 in 2013.

It’s not that prices are lower – fuel costs continue to go up, and airlines are continually finding new and exciting ways to increase their revenue streams. Rather, passengers have simply come to accept things like checked baggage fees as normal. “It isn’t that passengers are satisfied with fees, it’s that they are simply less dissatisfied because they realize that fees have become a way of life with air travel,” said Rick Garlick, global travel and hospitality practice leader at J.D. Power, said in the company’s press release for the study.  “Passengers are over the sticker shock of being charged more to fly, having to pay for checked bags, expedited security clearance, or for preferred seating.”

New services, like in-flight WiFi and easier check-in processes, also alleviated some of the price shock.

“No doubt the airline industry is doing a better job of pleasing passengers, but there still is a lot of room for improvement,” he added. “Satisfaction in improving, but it’s a stretch to say passengers are truly happy.”

So, what makes a content flyer? Interestingly enough, J.D. Power found that the most important contributors to customer satisfaction had very little to do with the actual trip. Waiting 15 minutes or more for a boarding pass sends overall satisfaction points plunging, as does waiting 15 minutes or longer to retrieve a checked bag after a flight. Despite that, more than half of passengers who check bags have to wait that long for their luggage to roll around that carousel.

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