May 15 (Bloomberg) -- North American airlines earned their highest rating for passenger satisfaction since 2006, before the advent of baggage fees, in a survey showing the value of smiling employees, onboard Wi-Fi and mobile applications.
Customers reported better experiences with both segments of the industry, the traditional full-service carriers such as Delta Air Lines Inc. and low-cost competitors including JetBlue Airways Corp., market researcher J.D. Power & Associates said today in its 2013 North America Airline Satisfaction Study.
Travelers who checked in with a mobile app, surfed the Web in flight and consistently received warm service helped buoy airlines’ rankings, according to Westlake Village, California-based J.D. Power. The study found fewer objections than in the past to luggage charges and booking-change payments, which totaled a record $6.1 billion in 2012.
“With each year, passengers are increasingly more accepting of carriers unbundling baggage and other fees,” Ramez Faza, senior manager of J.D. Power’s travel practice, said in a statement.
On a 1,000-point scale, customer satisfaction across the industry was 695, 14 points higher than in the 2012 survey, J.D. Power said. The score for full-service airlines rose 16 points to 663, and low-cost carriers gained one point to 755.
While “charging for bags still has a pronounced negative impact on passenger satisfaction,” according to Faza, the study found that 37 percent of travelers who checked luggage said the fees are reasonable, up from 28 percent a year earlier. Airlines in the U.S. began adopting baggage fees in 2008.
The annual study was based on responses from 11,800 business and leisure fliers on “major” North American airlines and measures passenger satisfaction in seven categories: cost and fees; in-flight services; boarding, deplaning and baggage; flight crew; aircraft; check-in and reservations.
The largest year-over-year improvements involved boarding, deplaning and baggage, followed by check-in and aircraft.
Alaska Air Group Inc.’s Alaska Airlines ranked highest among carriers with at least two cabin classes, followed by Delta and Air Canada. The low-cost segment was led by JetBlue, Southwest Airlines Co. and Canada’s WestJet Airlines Ltd.
“Traditional carriers have improved significantly across all seven factors, and it is a positive sign to see them turn a corner and starting to rise again,” said Jessica McGregor, senior manager of J.D. Power’s global travel and hospitality practice.
Satisfaction with flight crews climbed to the highest since 2005. Travelers smiled at by employees at least occasionally had an average satisfaction score 105 points higher than those who never received one. The rating was 211 points higher for those who consistently got a smile, the study found.
In other ways, technology improved travelers’ experience by letting them bypass personal interaction with airline staff.
The survey showed 36 percent of passengers check in for flights online, while 15 percent use a mobile device, more than double the 6 percent share two years ago. Satisfaction was highest for users of mobile apps, at 866, followed by use of a mobile device, 853. Check-ins at a kiosk had an average score of 805, trailed by an 801 for queuing up at the main ticket counter.
J.D. Power & Associates is a unit of McGraw Hill Financial Inc.
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