While customer grumblings abound about airline travel, a new report suggests that satisfaction is actually at its highest in more than two decades. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) Travel Report 2016, top ratings go to JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines (which tie for highest satisfaction), followed by Alaska Airlines. Spirit Airlines brings up the rear, preceded by Allegiant Air and Frontier Airlines. The report, released Tuesday, shows that travelers are also more satisfied than ever with online travel services but that they are less satisfied with hotels.
ACSI measures satisfaction across a variety of industries and has been surveying customers since 1994. The 2016 report was compiled from interviews conducted with 6,913 customers in March. Those customers, who were chosen at random, were asked about recent travel experiences. The names of airlines, hotels and online travel companies ranked in the survey came from the customers’ responses.
For the airline portion of the survey, customers were asked about their satisfaction in a dozen categories, including handling of baggage, helpfulness of staff and loyalty programs. Highest rankings went to ease of check-in process and ease of making a reservation, while lowest scores went to quality of in-flight services (beverages, food, movies and music) and seat comfort.
The overall customer satisfaction ranking in the 2016 survey increased 4.3 percent, to 72 out of 100 points, over last year’s score. This year’s score ties with the highest one that airlines have received since the survey began. But while the scores are on the rise, more improvements are needed: According to ACSI, a score of 80 or higher is considered “excellence” in customer satisfaction, and only two airlines — JetBlue and Southwest — scored at that level.
The peak in airline satisfaction is eye opening, Forrest Morgeson, ACSI’s director of research, says. “To see something like airlines, which has been perennially one of the lower-performing industries in ACSI, improve to an all-time high is certainly a noteworthy finding,” he says. He attributes the rise, in part, to an improved in-flight experience and falling fuel and ticket prices.
Morgeson adds that airline-customer satisfaction has been rising gradually over the past several years, which, he says, speaks to a change more fundamental than price and value. “That very well may be that we’ve got more competition in the industry than we’ve had in a long time. We’ve got some of the smaller carriers. You really do have more choices,” he says.
Except JetBlue, all of the airlines’ scores went up from last year (JetBlue is down 1 percent), and some did so substantially. Budget airlines Spirit and Frontier, which rank last and third from the bottom, respectively, both had double-digit improvements in customer satisfaction, at 15 percent for Spirit and 14 percent for Frontier.
The latest report shows that hotel satisfaction has gone down slightly, by 1.3 percent, to a score of 74. Hilton leads, followed by Marriott, Hyatt and Starwood. Wyndham and G6 Hospitality-Motel 6 ranked last.
While travelers gave high scores to hotels in categories such as making reservations and ease of checking in, they were less satisfied with loyalty programs, which fell 10 percent. Amenities — including fitness centers, spas and pools — and food service quality both decreased by 5 percent from last year.
Travelers are more satisfied than ever with online travel services, which rose 1.3 percent, to a score of 79, ranking above the airline and hotel industries. Priceline leads the way (81), but the other services are close behind. The lowest rankings went to Orbitz and Expedia, which earned 77 points.
Other takeaways from the report:
●Snack attack. American Airlines’ score went up 9 percent, to 72 points, and United Airlines’ score rose 13 percent, to 68 points. Why the leaps? The report points out that both airlines recently returned to serving free snacks in economy class.
●Seeking comfort. While seat comfort and in-flight entertainment still get low marks, customers noted signs of improvement. Seat comfort increased 5 percent, to 67 points, this year, and in-flight services (beverages, food and entertainment) increased 3 percent, to 71 points.
●A test of loyalty. Customers’ embrace of airline loyalty programs slipped one point, to 73 this year, and the report points out that travelers find it challenging to redeem rewards.
●Business baggage. Business travels are more likely to pay to check bags (46 percent) than leisure travelers (38 percent). On airplanes and in hotels alike, business travelers are about twice as likely as leisure travelers to complain as leisure travelers: 22 percent of business customers vs. 9 percent of leisure travelers complain about air travel, while 15 percent of business customers vs. 8 percent of leisure travelers complain about hotels.
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