Cheap Fares Are Really How Americans Judge Airlinesby and
J.D. Power says fliers are generally becoming more satisfied
‘A lot of things are going really well’ in the industry
From a public relations standpoint, the past month has been a disaster for U.S. airlines. But Americans are happier with the industry than they’ve been in years -- at least according to a survey taken before video of a bloodied passenger being hauled off a United Express flight went viral.
J.D. Power’s North America Airline Satisfaction Study found the overall ranking by fliers rose for a fifth consecutive year, jumping 30 points to 756 on a 1,000-point scale. That was thanks to lower fares, better on-time performance, fewer lost bags and the slimmest denied-boarding rate -- being bumped, in layman’s terms -- in the survey’s 13-year history.
“A lot of things are going really well in the airline industry at the moment,” said Michael Taylor, the travel practice lead at J.D. Power.
Recent events would seem to suggest otherwise. Social-media fueled furor over how carriers treat customers began when a physician who refused to be bumped was forcibly removed from the United Express flight by security officers in Chicago on April 9.
Then there came, to name a few in a series, the giant rabbit that died while in United Airlines’ care, an American Airlines baby-stroller fracas in San Francisco, another bumping video, this one from a Delta Air Lines plane, and an airport melee over canceled Spirit Airlines flights in Florida.
They all took place after J.D. Power canvassed more than 11,000 travelers between April 2016 and this March. The market-research company acknowledged the turbulence while underscoring solid improvements carriers charted among survey respondents.
“It’s impossible to think about airline customer satisfaction without replaying the recent images of a passenger being dragged from a seat, but our data shows that, as a whole, the airline industry has been making marked improvements in customer satisfaction across a variety of metrics,” Taylor said in a statement issued with the study results.
He said in an interview that it’s unclear whether all the mishaps would have altered people’s views, even if their own flight experiences had been routine. “We’re testing that proposition right now,” he said.
The satisfaction scores were higher in all seven areas J.D. Power looks at: the reservation process; check-in; boarding and deplaning; aircraft; flight crew; in-flight services; and ticket costs and fees. For all that, Taylor said, airlines remain stuck among the bottom tier of service industries J.D. Power tracks. “They’re miles behind hotels and rental-car companies.”
Southwest Airlines got top honors among low-cost carriers, with 807 points, just ahead of JetBlue Airways Corp. (803). Among traditional carriers, Alaska Airlines was ranked highest (765), followed by Delta (758).
Southwest benefits from its policy of not charging for the first two checked bags, Taylor said. And fliers are making their peace with such fees. “There is less dissatisfaction than six or seven or eight years ago.”
Some people’s frustration with carriers is keyed to sometimes unreasonable expectations, said Donna Towle, a former United vice president who worked with front-line workers. Passengers can perform so many booking functions online that they communicate with employees only when there’s a problem, she said. And then they want the problem fixed immediately.
Adding to the pressures is that “social media has created a tornado for anything and everything,” she said. For unhappy travelers, “that’s their avenue now -- they’re not writing letters to the chairman of the board.”
On one score, people who fly have it better than ever, said Seth Kaplan, managing partner of the industry journal Airline Weekly and co-author of “Glory Lost and Found: How Delta Climbed From Despair to Dominance in the Post-9/11 Era.” By some measures, he said, only about 15 percent of Americans could afford to an air ticket before Congress deregulated the industry in the late 1970s. Average fares have been declining; there was an 8.5 percent decrease last year to $349, according to U.S. government statistics.
“You can fly first class today for less on an inflation-adjusted basis than you could in economy back then,” Kaplan said. “It’s so cheap.”