Want to fly the traditional hub-and-spoke airline with the best level of customer satisfaction? Sorry, but you need to drive at least as far as Orlando to catch Alaska Airlines.
Tampa Bay area travelers can ride the top-rated low-cost airline — JetBlue — to the Big Apple, Boston and Cancun. And most-improved Southwest, which flies nearly one out of three passengers at Tampa International, makes nonstop flights to dozens of U.S. cities.
The J.D. Power and Associates annual North American airline satisfaction study released Tuesday likely won't influence which carrier you pick. Travelers overwhelmingly decide based on price, schedule and frequent-flyer memberships.
But rankings provide good fodder for opining on one of the world's most visible industries. A few interesting tidbits:
• Consumer satisfaction with airlines overall dropped for the third straight year. The biggest reason: prices and fees. Last year brought airline fees for checking a single bag. Most airlines also jacked up charges for changing a ticket, flying with a pet and flying unaccompanied minors.
• Southwest posted the only improved grade, in part because of because "boarding/deplaning/baggage measures," says J.D. Power. Must be those numbered boarding passes that ended the old "cattle car" rush into the cabin.
• JetBlue rang up its fourth consecutive win despite miserable punctuality. For most of the survey period, April 2008 to May 2008, JetBlue ranked 17th among 19 airlines tracked by the government for arrivals within 15 minutes of scheduled time — and worst among major airlines. True, JetBlue flies a big part of its schedule in New York's jammed airspace. But timeliness has to count for something.
One last thought. Airlines customers were more critical of their in-flight experience, from the cleanliness of planes to dealings with flight crews. Remember that planes flew packed over the last year as airlines slashed capacity.
That means fewer empty middle seats, slower service and short tempers. Another round of cuts comes after Labor Day.
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3384.