I spoke with Paula Sonkin, VP Travel and Real Estate at J.D. Power, who said that cost was the biggest influence for most passengers, and they've not been favorably impressed by the various sources of ancillary revenue (read: fees and charges) that the airlines have added recently. This, along with with declines in in-flight service, has led to overall customer satisfaction with airlines this year on the decline for the third straight year, reaching a four-year low (ouch). The only airline that improved its position versus last year was Southwest.
That's not to say that everything is gloom and doom, however. Sonkin pointed out that the airlines that did well - for example, Alaska, which was 4th place in 2007 and rose to 1st last year - did so because they focused on improving the things that were in their control. Fuel prices, a weak economy - those things can't be changed, and the things that occur as a result (such as increased fees and lowered employee morale, which can lead to poorer service) can be expected, if not necessarily liked. But Alaska really made strides because it improved its pre-flight process - that is, its website, the ticket booking process, and especially the check-in process, which the airline made faster and friendlier. Also on the plus side, passenger-reported flight delays and check-in times were reduced, and the general on-time arrival rate went up by more than 5% versus last year. “Despite the economic stresses that airlines are under, they are recognizing the value of passengers’ time and trying to make air travel more expedient and efficient,” said Dale Haines, senior director of the travel practice at J.D. Power. “Unfortunately, any improvements in customer satisfaction are being offset by passenger displeasure with cutbacks on in-flight services, increases in fees and issues with the helpfulness and courtesy of flight crews.”
jetBlue did very well, especially in the aircraft category (of course, flying a bunch of relatively new planes with in-flight TV might help), although Southwest really managed to place a strong second place (tied with WestJet), and the trend is that the airline is closing the gap with jetBlue. All of the airlines were scored on a 1000 point scale, and interestingly, even the lowest-ranked low-cost carrier (AirTran) still managed to beat the top-ranked traditional network carrier (see charts below). Delta and Continental performed adequately for the network carriers, with US Airways (haven't they branded themselves an LCC?) coming in dead last - maybe it was that whole experiment with charging $2 for drinks that really did them in. For the full results, head over to J.D. Power.
photo by MHJohnston from Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons