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Survey: Airline employees are our biggest complaint

What bugs you most about flying these days?

Maybe it's the latest fee for something that used to be free. Or the black, mushy banana you find tucked in the seat cushion pocket in front of you. How about security lines that move like glaciers, late flights and air fares that rise as relentlessly as gas prices?

A survey of more than 19,000 passengers released Tuesday by J.D. Power and Associates had some predictable headlines. Customer satisfaction with airlines is at a three-year low. Travelers like JetBlue better than Delta and a lot better than perennial laggards United and Northwest.

What caught me by surprise was what fliers judged the fastest-slipping area of the flying experience: how they're treated by airline employees. It included "knowledge, courtesy and helpfulness of reservation and gate agents, check-in staff and flight crew." Ouch.

No question airline workers are under stress. Record fuel prices sent the business into a economic spiral that makes the post-9/11 era look like a day the beach. Airlines are grounding dozens of planes and jettisoning jobs by the thousands. Delta offered buyouts to 30,000 employees, hoping 2,000 would accept. Twice that many volunteered.

Workers still on the job likely took deep pay and benefit cuts in earlier bankruptcies of United, Delta, US Airways and Northwest. Some flight attendants work 25 percent more hours to earn as much as they did a few years ago.

None of this is an excuse for unprofessional behavior. But consider something else before blasting the reservations agent who won't change your ticket for free or the guy at the gate who said an hour ago that your flight would arrive in 30 minutes.

Frontline workers typically take the flak for decisions made thousands of miles away. Like the brainstorm at American, followed by United and US Airways, to charge $30 round trip to check a suitcase. These airlines are making plans to police an expected flood of new carry-on bags and separate them from their owners.

Just think how much that will improve your next flying experience.

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

J.D. Power's airline satisfaction ratings

Airlines below provide service at Tampa International Airport.

Low-cost carriers

Airline Rating
JetBlue Like last year, JetBlue ranks No. 1 overall and among low-cost carriers, earning high marks for its cost, crew, in-flight services and check-in process.
Southwest Southwest also received top ratings for its cost, but a lack of in-flight services and average flight crew and interior conditions hurt its overall score.
AirTran AirTran didn't come close to measuring up to its higher-ranked peers, JetBlue and Southwest, posting below-average ratings in most categories.
Frontier Frontier also received below-average marks in several categories, including cost, reservations/scheduling, check-in and flight crew.

Traditional network carriers

Airline Rating
Continental Continental landed at the top of the heap among traditional carriers overall and scored consistently well in reservations, check-in and plane interiors.
Delta Delta ranked a notch below Continental overall, based mainly on its reservations and scheduling system, which was ranked "about average."
Air Canada Air Canada drew raves for the pristine condition of its aircrafts' interiors, but fliers found fault with the reservations and check-in processes.
American The largest airline got middle-of-the-road ratings in all categories, failing to stand out in any one area, though also not drawing harsh complaints.
US Airways The reservations/scheduling and check-in ratings for US Airways fell below those of most of its competitors, while plane interiors were judged average.
Northwest Ratings of the interior conditions of Northwest's aircraft reflected general dissatisfaction, while its scheduling and check-in ratings were average.
United United failed to impress in any area, posting below-average ratings in all categories, and overall was the lowest-ranked traditional carrier.

Survey: Airline employees are our biggest complaint 06/17/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2008 9:23am]
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