Last updated: 09:29 AM ET, Mon April 20 2015

Good News: Airlines Rise in Passenger Satisfaction Survey

Airlines & Airports | Rich Thomaselli | April 20, 2015

Good News: Airlines Rise in Passenger Satisfaction Survey

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

As with anything, there is good news and bad news.

For U.S. airlines, the good news is that passenger satisfaction was up 2.9 percent over last year in the annual American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) survey. On a scale of 0 to 100, airlines reached an ACSI benchmark of 71 for 2015. The index registered customer satisfaction in several industries including hotels and online travel agencies (OTAs).

If that still sounds a bit low, well, that’s the bad news. The airlines’ peak high in the ACSI was 72 – and that was in 1994 – and the industry remains among ACSI’s bottom four categories, ahead of only Internet service providers, subscription television and health insurance.

“There’s an uptick, and of course that’s a good news. Anything the airlines can do around the edges to improve is good,” David VanAmburg, managing director of ACSI, told TravelPulse ahead of this morning’s release of the annual report. “But there are only three industries that are performing worse. (Airlines) are still a very low-performing industry relative to retail and other things that we measure.”

And VanAmburg said it’s not necessarily a pricing issue, as with some other industries.

“Pricing is important, but the bulk of it is, this is fundamentally still a not-very-pleasant experience,” he said. “And unless they decide to put only 100 seats in a 757, you’re not going to see improvement. Airline travel is an experienced we’re not accustomed to. It’s mass transit in the air.”

The on-board experience, including seat comfort, remains the worst part of flying with an ACSI benchmark score of 65. Passengers are happier with in-flight services such as entertainment options, up seven percent to 72.

“That’s a plus,” VanAmburg said. “Even five years ago, you’d fly and get a choice of three, four crappy movies and now they have these huge entertainment packages.”

Individually, JetBlue was up three percent to top the field with an ACSI rating of 81. JetBlue has been No. 1 for passenger satisfaction since 2012, but ACSI noted that the airline’s plans to start charging for bags and reduce legroom may make it difficult for JetBlue to keep its title.

Southwest is flat at 78, but still maintains an edge over the remainder of the field. ACSI newcomer Alaska Airlines debuts at 75, ahead of three other ACSI entrants: Allegiant Air (65), Frontier Airlines (58) and Spirit Airlines (54). The major legacy carriers also are unchanged from last year, with Delta (71) holding an advantage over American (66) and United (60).

One year into its merger with US Airways, American has avoided any negative impact on satisfaction. This may reflect the airline’s slower approach to combining operations, with integration of loyalty programs and reservation systems happening well into 2015. United, by contrast, remains at 60, ahead of only budget operators Frontier and Spirit. Spirit’s customer satisfaction level of 54 reflects its low-fare, low-service model that caters to consumers who fly on price alone.

“Southwest appears to have successfully managed its AirTran acquisition, but its expansion into international travel may cause some turbulence ahead,” says Claes Fornell, ACSI Chairman and founder. “On the other end of the spectrum, Spirit may offer low fares, but its score reflects its minimalist approach to customer service.”


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