Index: Airlines Score Low in Passenger Satisfaction

 - April 22, 2014, 5:13 PM
United's 2010 merger with Continental still weighs against passenger satisfaction, according to the ACSI Travel Report. (Photo: Bill Carey)

Passenger satisfaction with U.S. airlines remains low, according to an annual benchmarking survey, which identified uncomfortable seats and poor inflight service as major contributing factors. The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) Travel Report on airlines, hotels and Internet travel sites, released on April 22, found that overall passenger satisfaction remains unchanged from last year, with some airlines improving and others lapsing.

Airlines for America (A4A), which represents major U.S. carriers, defended the industry. “U.S. airlines continue to do a great job for their customers despite many circumstances beyond their control, including historically severe weather and air traffic controller furloughs,” the trade organization said. “We are in the safest period of aviation, air travel remains a bargain, and airlines are investing back into the business at a high level, including (for) new planes, Wi-Fi and other amenities.”

Airlines overall scored 69 on the ACSI’s 100-point scale and remain one of the lowest-scoring industries it measures, the Ann Arbor, Mich., research organization said. However, airlines do outrank subscription television, Internet service and social media sites, ACSI said. The 2014 report is based on interviews with 7,445 customers, chosen at random and contacted from October 21 to March 11.

JetBlue led U.S. airlines in satisfaction with an ACSI score of 79, which eroded from the 83 it scored last year. Southwest finished second with 78, also down from last year. Delta (71), American (66) and US Airways (66) improved over last year. United declined by 3 percent and scored lowest at 60, which the report attributes to fallout from its 2010 merger with Continental. “We’ve seen time and time again the negative impact mergers have on customer satisfaction,” said Claes Fornell, ACSI chairman and founder. “Southwest led the industry for 17 years until it merged with AirTran in 2011 and Delta is just now recovering from its 2008 merger with Northwest.”

Airlines score in the eighties for passenger satisfaction when it comes to reservations, check-in and websites, but the experience diminishes once passengers board the airplane. “While airlines do a good job with respect to pre-boarding (booking and check-in), the flight itself is a different matter,” the ACSI report states. “The quality of in-flight services is mediocre (67) and seat comfort is poor (63). Regrettably for both airlines and their passengers, the flight is not only the most protracted part of the airline product, it is also the most important in terms of customer satisfaction.”

United emailed AIN the following response: “United is investing significantly to provide employees the tools to deliver great service and improve our customers’ experiences. While we have reduced complaints year-over-year and improved on-time performance and overall reliability, we continue to develop new customer products and services and employee programs to deliver the experience travelers expect.”

The Chicago-based carrier said it has completed a first round of customer-service training for “tens of thousands” of employees; updated international premium cabins with flat-bed seats; installed Wi-Fi on 200 aircraft, with most remaining aircraft to be completed this year; increased overhead bin storage on “scores” of aircraft; opened redesigned airport lounges in Chicago, Seattle and San Diego; and launched a new mobile application.