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Surprise: North American airlines improve customer satisfaction

In a J.D. Power and Associates survey of fliers, customer satisfaction improved for the first time in years, but fees are disliked.

Associated Press (2000)

In a J.D. Power and Associates survey of fliers, customer satisfaction improved for the first time in years, but fees are disliked.

Your odds of sitting beside an open seat are roughly the same as hitting the Powerball.

The airline charged $25 each way for your only checked bag, $5 for a snack and $125 for Fido to fly under your seat. A seat that might not even recline anymore.

So what to make out of the latest headline in aviation: Customer Satisfaction with Airlines Improves.

Come again?

The news that arrived Tuesday came from J.D. Power and Associates, which checks in each year on the preferences of air travelers, along with its other consumer surveys. The company interviewed more than 12,300 travelers who flew on a major North American airline between April 2009 and April 2010.

J.D. Power reported that airline customer satisfaction in the past year jumped to a rating of 673 points on a 1,000-point scale, a 15-point increase. That marked the first uptick after three years of declines. Overall, 10 of the 12 airlines improved their ratings from 2009.

Customers continued to rate discount airlines higher as a group than network carriers that fly coast-to-coast routes and route passengers through big hubs.

Alaska Airlines topped the ratings for network carriers for the third year in a row. JetBlue Airways led the discounters for the fifth straight year.

The industry's improved ratings stemmed largely from its financial struggles in 2009, said Stuart Greif, vice president and general manager of J.D. Power's global travel and hospitality practice.

Businesses and leisure travelers jittery over the economy cut trips. That forced carriers to scale back schedules and aggressively discount fares. With fewer flights in the skies, on-time performance improved, and airlines lost fewer bags and got fewer complaints from customers.

"From April 2008 to April 2009, you had much higher oil prices and airfares,'' said Joe Brancatelli, editor of the business travel website joesentme.com. "The air traffic system was overloaded. You went from that to some of the lowest fares in a decade and the least delays.''

But what about those fees?

Travelers told J.D. Power that they don't like them, Greif said. But the fees are so pervasive that passengers are starting to "recalibrate their expectations,'' he said.

Or they're taking their business elsewhere. The top three discount carriers in customer satisfaction — JetBlue, Southwest and WestJet — all allow passengers at least one free checked bag.

"It's not that they're getting used to it,'' Kate Hanni, founder of consumer group FlyersRights.org, said. "It's resignation.''

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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Rankings for discount airlines

1. JetBlue Airways (764)
2. Southwest Airlines (742)
3. WestJet (740)
4. AirTran Airways (704)
5. Frontier Airlines (688)
Rankings for network airlines
1. Alaska Airlines (699)
2. Continental Airlines (672)
3. American Airlines (642)
4. Delta Air Lines (640)
5. Air Canada (636)
6. United Airlines (630)
7. US Airways (613)
Points out of 1,000 possible

Surprise: North American airlines improve customer satisfaction 06/08/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 9, 2010 11:50am]
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