Last updated: 10:30 AM ET, Thu May 12 2016

J.D. Power’s Latest Survey Shows That Airlines Are Indeed Getting Better

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | May 12, 2016

J.D. Power’s Latest Survey Shows That Airlines Are Indeed Getting Better

Airlines have been touting improved cabins, better in-flight offerings and falling fares. According to the recently released J.D. Power 2016 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, these claims are more than mere hype. Not only are the improvement real, but passengers seem to be responding positively to them. 

The J.D. Power survey involved 10,348 passengers who flew on major North American airlines between March 2015 and March 2016. The participants’ responses were used to calculate scores in seven different areas: cost and fees, in-flight services, boarding/deplaning/baggage, flight crew, aircraft, check-in and reservation. The scores were given on a 1,000 point scale.  

Adding value leads to a higher level of satisfaction

Earlier this year, the DOT said that the number of passenger complaints that it had received had risen. However, an overall rise in the level of flier discontent was not seen in the Airline Satisfaction Survey. In fact, the results showed quite the opposite.   

Rick Garlick, global travel and hospitality practice lead at J.D. Power, explained that the data seemed to show that airlines were headed in the right direction: “While the perception of the airline experience still has a lot of room for improvement, there is notable progress in terms of satisfaction among the highest-ranked airlines in the study due to their keen focus on meeting or exceeding passenger needs.” 

Garlick also highlighted that fact that airlines who had added value to their product had better satisfaction scores than airlines who hadn’t made such improvements. “Airlines are making positive strides by adding value to their products and services with newer and cleaner planes, better in-flight services, improving on-time arrivals and bumping fewer passengers from their flights. For airlines ranking below the study average, investing in product and service improvements now may reap big rewards in the future when it comes to retention, reputation and share of wallet.”

Which airlines had the highest scores?

JetBlue had the highest score overall on the survey with 790 points. This was perhaps a slight disappointment for the Long Island-based carrier. Last year, ‘Blue broke the 800 point barrier. Nonetheless it has had a very impressive run on the survey. 2016 is the 12th consecutive year that it earned the highest overall score of any North American airline from J.D. Power.  

Southwest came in a close second. The LCC earned 789 points and improved in all seven categories compared to 2015, including a 15 point jump in the “aircraft” category. 

Alaska Airlines came out on top in the full-service/traditional carrier category. It earned 751 point overall and scored consistently well in all seven categories. 

Delta was next in the “traditional carrier” category. It earned 725 points and improved in all seven categories compared to 2015’s survey. This is a notable result because it seems to back up the claims made by both outgoing CEO Richard Anderson and current chief Ed Bastian, who have been continuously touting Delta’s across-the-board improvements. 

READ MORE: How Did Airlines Fare in The 2016 American Consumer Satisfaction Index?

The industry is getting better overall

Perhaps the most surprising stats came from the industry as a whole. Fliers' overall satisfaction level rose by nine points this year to 726. That is the highest point total since the current scoring system was put in place by J.D. Power and Associates in 2006. Traditional carriers (full service airlines like Delta, American, United and Alaska) brought the average down a little bit. The score for the traditional segment alone was 703. Low cost carriers scored 775 overall. 

The score differences might have something to do with people having lower expectations from LCCs, or it may be that these airlines simply are able to outperform their full-service competitors.  

Still room for improvement

Of the seven categories, “in-flight services” had the lowest overall combined score (650). This area still leaves a lot to be desired, but 2016’s score was 12 points higher than last year. Also, passengers who chose an airline because of specific in-flight services like Wi-Fi and entertainment options gave their chosen carrier a satisfaction score of 800 points or more, on average. 

"Cost and fees" was another underperforming category. Overall, airlines scored 658 points in this area. Like “in-flight services,” however, 2016’s score was a 12 point improvement over the previous year. This result could mean a couple of things. Fliers could be getting more used to the extra fees that airlines are so fond of charging and they simply accept them as a part of the cost of travel. Or, they could be responding positively to the lower fares that are now being offered on many major routes. 

Finally, for the first time in the history of the survey, business travelers were more satisfied with airlines than their leisure traveling peers. Business travelers gave airlines an overall satisfaction score of 733, while leisure travelers awarded 725 points. Legacy carriers, in particular, have been focusing on bringing better services to business travelers, improving business class cabins and airport lounges and offering better Wi-Fi connections. 

Value added

The results of the J.D. Power 2016 North America Airline Satisfaction Study show that, overall, the airline industry is headed in the right direction. More carriers seem to understand that the way to satisfy customers is to bring more value to the in-flight experience. Customers are more likely to accept fees if they are getting a good product in return. 


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