A recent survey on travel apps discovered that people place the highest demand on airline apps, which ranked the lowest in four categories. (iStock)

What can we learn from a new survey on travel apps? That we need the smartphone tools to work quickly and efficiently when we are in motion — and that we like photos of hotels.

J.D. Power, an international marketing company that collects data on consumer services, recently released the findings of its first U.S. Travel App Satisfaction Study. The overall assessment was positive, although some travel categories beamed brighter than others.

For the survey, which was done in December and January, the company assessed more than 12,000 user-generated insights into two dozen apps covering four categories: airlines, hotels, rental car companies and online travel agencies (OTAs), such as Orbitz and Expedia. Participants were asked to recall the last time they used an app and to perform a function with the tool. With this data, the study then ranked satisfaction and loyalty based on the apps’ clarity of information, ease of navigation, appearance, screen-loading speed, and range of services and activities.

Out of 1,000 points, the hotel, OTA and car apps each achieved an 849, and the airlines earned an 840. Michael Taylor, the senior director of travel intelligence at J.D. Power, commended these numbers, saying, “They are actually very good scores.” However, they did not reach the gold standard-level of apps, the credit card companies (874) and banks (867).

Taylor said the airlines posted weaker scores because travelers place the most performance pressure on them. Unlike hotels and rental cars, which have more forgiving arrival times, passengers have no wiggle room with air travel. They require the most current and accurate information to make their flight or rebook a reservation.

“They received lower numbers because of the stress associated with the deadline,” he said. “If you are two hours late, you’ve got problems.”

According to the survey, the airline apps were not as easy to navigate as the hotel apps. Only JetBlue and Southwest scored “among the best”; United and American Airlines occupied the lowest rung, called “the rest.” In addition, airline apps were the tortoises in the screen-loading race; OTAs were the hares. However, the airline apps did receive some backslapping news: Of the four sectors, the airlines had the most downloaded apps and the highest user rate — six percentage points above hotel apps and 31 percentage points over rental cars.

Individually, JetBlue ranked the highest in overall customer satisfaction, with an 864; Southwest (861) and Alaska Airlines (849) took second and third place. For hotels, World of Hyatt nabbed an 867, with IHG (855) and Hilton Honors (853) rounding out the top three. In the OTA category, the top three were Orbitz (866), Priceline (859) and Expedia (847). And finally, National earned the crown for rental cars, with an 860; Enterprise Car Rental (854) and Hertz (844) filled the runner-up positions.

The survey also discovered a direct connection between the app users’ level of satisfaction and their affiliation with the travel provider’s loyalty program. People who are members tended to be more content with the app. Travelers also praised apps that allowed them to easily locate their reward balances, with airlines excelling in this category. The hotels and OTAs also performed well in the photo department. Travelers want to see images of the hotels before booking, and the companies complied.

“Seeing a picture of what you’re booking is reassuring,” Taylor said. “It is more critical than seeing a photo of the car you are renting.”

Taylor said the apps can all learn from one another and should incorporate one another’s strengths. They should also offer more personalized information. For example, a car rental app could show you the best route back to the airport rental facility and the closest gas station to the drop-off point.

“It should be specific to your trip,” he said.

As an example of individualized service, Taylor shared a recent experience with American Airlines’ app. The tool told him that his checked luggage had not made it onto his flight and asked him where he wanted to recover them. Before taking off, he told the carrier, through its app, to deliver the bags to his home. He then turned off his phone — and apps.

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