The relationship between airlines and customer service has grown only more fraught in the era of packed planes and innumerable fees. A new satisfaction ranking leaves U.S. airlines with just one thin defense on the people-pleasing front: Hey, at least we’re not as bad as the cable TV industry!
Airlines in the U.S. received an average score of 69 on the 100-point ranking system used by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a second straight year of improvement that still leaves the industry near the bottom of the barrel. Makers of soft drinks and cars, by contrast, received industrywide scores of 84 this year.
Individually, JetBlue Airways (JBLU) was the highest-ranked airline for customer service, with a score of 83, followed by Southwest (LUV) (81). Delta (DAL) gained 5 percent to notch a 68. United (UAL), the world’s largest airline, was lowest at 62—a full 15 points below the U.S. Postal Service, which received a 77 this year.
“It is what it is, but you know a lot of it is in part because of a lack of competition and because it is a difficult industry to manage in,” says Claes Fornell, ACSI’s founder and chairman and a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, which recently spun off the survey into a separate company. The results have been consistently dismal over time for airlines, with the base score unchanged since the poll launched in 1995. The American Customer Satisfaction Index, which does not include foreign carriers, surveyed 8,963 people via telephone and e-mail for this month’s survey.
Only cable television (68) and Internet service providers (65) score lower than airlines, and Fornell notes that both of those businesses operate as monopolies in most U.S. markets. In last month’s survey, Time Warner Cable (TWC) received a 60, 13 points below the sector’s top scorer, Verizon Communications’ (VZ) FiOS service. (The lowest score in ACSI history was the 43 given to Long Island Power Authority in April 2013, an outcome of the utility’s troubles recovering from Hurricane Sandy.)
Airlines can find a few brights spots in the latest satisfaction survey. The public has taken notice of the industry’s concerted push to reduce flight delays (earning an 81-point score) and appreciates the variety of new Internet and mobile check-in options that carriers have developed (82), according to the survey. Passenger satisfaction tends to plunge on board, with in-flight services (68) and seat comfort (63) ranking low.
If you hate to fly, Fornell has some small comfort for your next trip: “It could get worse—it can always get worse.”