Traveler satisfaction with airlines drops – again

Low-cost carriers trump traditional airlines in a new survey of customer satisfaction. But all have room for improvement.

Customer satisfaction with America's airlines has dropped for the fourth straight year, according to a survey by J.D. Powers and Associates, an independent research firm.

Just as in the past, low-cost carriers such as JetBlue and Southwest outdid their rivals, attaining higher overall satisfaction rankings than the traditional carriers like United and American.

The North American Airline Survey, conducted every year since 1992, measures seven factors, from cost to boarding procedures to flight crew and in-flight services. Of a total possible score of 1,000, the traditional carriers had an average score of 626, compared with 726 for the low-cost airlines.

A primary cause of the overall dissatisfaction is the economy and the fees that airlines have tacked on for services such as checked baggage, which used to be free, researchers say.

"About 29 percent of overall satisfaction is related to the cost and the pricing," says Paula Sonkin, vice president for travel and real estate industries at J.D. Powers in West Lake Village, Calif. "Given that 2008 is the year of the fees, I think that played a role."

Among low-cost carriers, JetBlue had the highest rating, at 750. It's the fourth consecutive year the New York-based company has topped the customer-satisfaction rankings. But this year, Southwest and WestJet ranked a close second, with 736. Among traditional carriers, Alaska Airlines had the top rating with 671, followed by Continental with 669.

Ms. Sonkin attributes those carriers' better scores to improvements in on-time performance and a streamlined check-in process.

"The carriers that ranked the highest did so because they were able to differentiate themselves in those preflight activities by streamlining and improving those, but not enough to offset the dissatisfaction with the cost and pricing," she says.

Low-cost carriers also received better marks overall than their traditional rivals because they have more streamlined check-in processes.

"They also do a great job of setting and managing their customers' expectations," says Sonkin.

Of all the airlines, only Southwest got a higher score than it did last year. That's in part due to airlines' economic plight, which has prompted them to lay off employees and reduce their capacity.

"They have fewer flight offerings, and those flights are more crowded because there are more seats on those planes, so there's less legroom," she says. "More travelers on a flight also make it more difficult for flight attendants with those courtesy and helpfulness issues."

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