Airline customer satisfaction is higher than you might think, a survey indicates
By KATE SILVER | Special To The Washington Post | Published: May 7, 2018
The airline industry is one that passengers love to hate. And yet, overall customer satisfaction hit an all-time high in 2017 and declined only slightly in 2018, according to the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index Travel Report, which was released in late April.
In the report, Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue received the highest marks from customers, while budget carriers Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines were at the bottom. Legacy carriers, including Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines, were in the middle. The report also shows that customer satisfaction in the hotel industry remains stable, while marks for online travel services have slightly declined.
In the report, airlines received an overall rating of 73 out of 100, which is a 2.7 percent decline from last year's high of 75. The ACSI measures satisfaction across a variety of industries and has been surveying customers since 1994. The 2018 report was compiled from interviews conducted with 12,172 customers between April 2017 and March 2018. Those customers, who were chosen at random, were asked about recent travel experiences.
While this year's score is a drastic improvement over a low of 61 in 2001, David VanAmburg, the ASCI's managing director, cautioned that the ranking should still be put into context.
"That's definitely on the lower side when we talk about ACSI scores and the various industries we measure," he said. "Although it's certainly far from rock bottom."
Rock bottom went to internet service providers and subscription television service, which were tied at 64. Other categories that scored a 73 in customer satisfaction include the U.S. Postal Service, wireless telephone services, the health-insurance industry and internet social media, all of which drew their fair share of groans. Compared with the airlines, customers reported they were slightly more satisfied with municipal utilities (75) and less satisfied with fixed-line telephone service (70).
In the survey, customers indicated that they were as satisfied as last year with the ease of the check-in process, but less satisfied with everything else. That included ease of making a reservation, courtesy and helpfulness of flight crew, timeliness of arrival, boarding experience and baggage handling. Seat comfort scored the lowest.
The standings of the individual airlines remain fairly consistent every year, VanAmburg said. At the top, Southwest (80) and JetBlue (79) tend to do well because they're discount carriers that trade in some services for lower fare, he said.
"That leads to higher levels of satisfaction, because a lot of fliers don't care all that much about having lots of service," VanAmburg said. "They want to get from A to B alive and safe and on time, and that's the most important thing."
Alaska Airlines (79) gained a point from last year, tying for second place. VanAmburg attributed that rise to the airline's purchase of Virgin Atlantic, which is known for its customer service, and lower ticket prices.
In the middle-to-lower portion of the rankings were Allegiant Air (74), American (74) Delta (74) and — ouch — United (67). Allegiant's score increased 4 percent over last year, thanks, in part, to a new loyalty program. It tied with American and Delta, which both offer more services than discount carriers, but at a premium. United's score dropped 4 percent. The report notes that its customer service scores showing an especially sharp decline in the areas of courtesy and helpfulness.
Frontier and Spirit tied for last (62).
VanAmburg said that passengers fly those airlines solely based on ticket price. "The recognition is I'm not going to get any service," he said. "And as a result, satisfaction is extremely low."
Following uproars over recent tragedies, such as the death of a dog on a United flight, and appalling events such as a passenger being dragged off another United flight, it may come as a surprise that satisfaction ratings remained relatively stable. (It should be noted that the survey was conducted before the recent death of a passenger on a Southwest flight when the engine exploded.) But those types of incidents generally don't influence customer satisfaction.
"We're not measuring public opinion at ACSI," VanAmburg said. "The whole approach to this is to look at actual purchase and consumption experiences in various brands of products and services." In other words, the results are influenced by the factors that directly impact the majority of airline passengers, such as price, technology, seat comfort and other areas. "When we see major events, like Delta has a computer glitch at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and thousands of flights are grounded, that can have an impact, because now you're talking about a huge swath of Delta's customer base being affected by a particular event," he said.
The 2018 ACSI travel survey also polled participants on hotels and scored the major brands. The overall score for the industry is 76, which is the same as 2017. VanAmburg said that lodging alternatives, such as Airbnb, were pushing hotels to up their game.
Hotels also scored higher points over last year in areas where technology has made strides, such as ease of check in process, in-room internet service and in-room entertainment quality. Top-scoring brands in the survey were AC Hotels by Marriott (84), Hilton Garden Inn (83), Embassy Suites by Hilton (82), Hampton by Hilton (82), Hilton Hotels & Resorts (82) and JW Marriott (82). Tied at the bottom were Days Inn and Motel 6 (65).
The ranking of internet travel services declined just over 1 percent since 2017, from 79 to 78 points. Looking at the individual scores among the sites, the differences aren't especially wide-ranging: Orbitz.com, which is owned by Expedia.com, scored the highest, with 81 points, while Expedia and Priceline.com came in last with 78 points. The sites were ranked based on ease of booking and payment, ease of navigation, site performance and other criteria. Because the sites tend to be similar in appearance and services, VanAmburg said that he was not surprised by the results. "We expect to see a very tight range there," he said.
Overall, when it comes to travel, customers are more satisfied now than they have been in the past. And while the airline industry score is slightly below average, VanAmburg said that he doesn't expect to see the numbers climb too much above where they are today. That's because of the sheer nature of the mode of travel, which, he pointed out, entails flying through the air at 35,000 feet while packed into a narrow tube with strangers.
"No matter how well the airline is treating you," he said, "it's just not a particularly pleasant experience."
Silver is a writer based in Chicago.