The Big Airlines' Loyal Fans

A survey shows old-line carriers have hung on to some devotees: Business travelers

Mark Kristensson, a software designer with Onyx Software (ONXS ), jets off from Salt Lake City three times a month to see clients. When he books a flight, he usually has plenty of options, from discount carriers such as Southwest Airlines (LUV ) and JetBlue Airways (JBLU ) to Delta Air Lines (DAL ). Mostly, though, he sticks with United Airlines (UALAQ ). He loves the extra legroom in its Economy Plus seats and the frequent-flier perks. But what keeps United his top choice, Kristensson says, is its route network; he can get almost anywhere anytime on United.

These days, most everyone wants to bash the old-line carriers. But they're still No. 1 with an important group: business travelers. We know because you told us. In BusinessWeek's first online survey on air travel, we asked subscribers and Web site visitors about their preferences, including their favorite and least-favorite carriers. Some 1,250 of you logged on to businessweek.com over the past six weeks to vote. Your faves? United, the top pick of nearly 1 in 5, with American Airlines (AMR ), its bigger rival, in second. The worst? Their nemesis, the no-frills giant, Southwest.

As sales-development rep for CUNA Mutual Group based in Dallas, Richard Woodard is familiar with both American and Southwest, which are also based in that city. His preference: American, hands down. Recently, to save $100, he took a Southwest flight. The "cattle call" at the departure gate to claim a seat drove him nuts. On American, he often gets bumped up to first class and can board ahead of the pack thanks to his status as a 100,000-mile-a-year flier. "They make every effort to take care of the business traveler," he says.

Not everyone, of course, is smitten with the traditional airlines. Southwest came in third as most-liked carrier. "The majors have definitely declined in every aspect," says Lyle Kenaga, a national sales manager in Nashville for cleaning-supplies manufacturer Spontex, who flies on Southwest whenever he can. Even most-liked United was named least favorite by 14.7% of the survey respondents.

SINGLED OUT

One reason the traditional airlines dominate the best and worst lists might be that they also dominate the industry. The network airlines and their regional affiliates still carry 7 of every 10 passengers in the U.S. The more familiar people are with a subject of a survey, whether it's a political candidate or a carrier, the more likely they are to single them out, whether for bouquets or brickbats. Also, travelers tend to expect more from the majors, so it's easier for them to trip up.

The survey responses also show that business travelers are swayed by more than cheap seats. You want the airline with the best schedule and fewest stops. You want an assigned seat. You want a frequent-flier program that gives you free upgrades and overseas tickets. And you cherish the little things, whether it's automatic rebooking or, like Danny Rocks, a vice-president at music publisher Alfred Publishing in Los Angeles, a flight attendant wishing you a happy birthday.

Most times, there's ample reason to fly on the major airlines. For one, they typically match discount-carrier fares. In addition, most of you now make your own arrangements on Internet airline and travel sites, so it's your call. Besides, you're busy people, and your time is worth some premium.

Kristen Howe is another BusinessWeek subscriber who helped make United No. 1. An account manager with Corporate Executive Board (EXBD ), a Washington consultancy to upper managers, Howe flies about once a week somewhere in the eastern third of the U.S. and always chooses United if she can. Why? "Their customer service is great," she says. Gate agents make it easy to get on earlier flights, for instance, if she arrives at an airport sooner than planned. They also help if she's running late. Just the other day, Howe got to the departure gate at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport to find the jetway door already closed. An agent reopened it so she could make the flight.

Granted, Howe's business won't hasten United's emergence from Chapter 11. But such loyalty can't hurt. And after reading their companies' obituaries day after day, it must be gratifying for workers at the old airlines to hear that at least one group still favors them.

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