Low-Cost Airlines Improve Passenger Satisfaction

Although low-cost carriers continue to lead the way in improving passenger satisfaction, traditional carriers still struggle to meet travelers' expectations, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2012 North America Airline Satisfaction Study. Checked baggage fees are a major customer sore point while use of mobile boarding passes wins approval.

The study finds that after two years of consecutive industry improvements, overall passenger satisfaction has declined slightly to 681 index points on a 1,000-point scale - down from 683 in 2011. Although satisfaction with low-cost carriers improves for a third consecutive year (increasing 3 index points from 2011 to average 754), satisfaction with traditional carriers declines 4 points to 647, J.D. Power said.

"The airline industry is caught between trying to satisfy customers who demand low prices, high-quality service and comfort, and contending with the economic challenges of profitably operating an airline," said Stuart Greif, vice president and general manager of the global travel and hospitality practice at J.D. Power and Associates. "Passengers want it all, but they are not necessarily willing to pay for it all. Carriers often must make decisions for financial reasons that they know will negatively impact passenger satisfaction, and therein lies the conundrum."

The study measures overall customer satisfaction based on performance in seven factors (in order of importance): cost and fees; in-flight services; boarding/deplaning/baggage; flight crew; aircraft; check-in; and reservation.

The cost and fees factor continues to play a key role, the survey notes. Checked baggage fees are a customer sore point and have a notable impact, with satisfaction averaging 85 points lower among passengers who pay to check bags. For example, two carriers with the highest satisfaction scores in the study - JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines - do not charge passengers to check the first bag. Additionally, Air Canada, which also does not charge for the first bag, performs particularly well among the traditional network carriers in the cost and fees factor.  

While the cost and fees factor is important, more than 70 percent of passenger satisfaction is driven by other parts of the overall experience. The study finds that the attributes pertaining to a carrier's process and people, rather than price, are more highly correlated with passengers' intentions to fly with an airline again in the future.

"Despite the need for some carriers to charge unpopular fees, they can gain a competitive advantage by focusing their efforts on process efficiency and positive interactions with the staff and crew," said Jessica McGregor, senior manager of the global travel and hospitality practice at J.D. Power and Associates. "Carriers that find innovative ways to provide passengers with greater control, save them time, reduce hassles and make the airline experience more enjoyable and comfortable will reap satisfaction benefits."

For example, a large majority of travelers remark positively on their experience and use of mobile boarding passes. The North America Airline Satisfaction Study finds that while online check-in rates remain relatively consistent year over year (34 percent in 2012 compared with 32 percent in 2011), the use of mobile devices to check in for a flight has more than doubled to 11 percent in 2012 from 5 percent in 2011. Overall satisfaction with the check-in process is highest when passengers check in using a mobile device (845), compared with curbside (840); using a traditional computer/laptop (825); kiosk (793); and main counter (778).

Alaska Airlines ranks highest in the traditional network carrier segment for a fifth consecutive year, performing particularly well in four of the seven factors: boarding/deplaning/baggage; flight crew; check-in; and reservation. Air Canada follows just 1 index point behind Alaska Airlines in the segment, performing particularly well in the cost and fees, in-flight services and aircraft factors. Delta Air Lines, which moved up two rank positions to third, is the only traditional carrier to improve from 2011, by 9 index points.

JetBlue Airways ranks highest among low-cost carriers for a seventh consecutive year, performing particularly well in two factors: in-flight services and aircraft. Southwest Airlines follows closely behind, performing particularly well in four factors: cost and fees; boarding/deplaning/baggage; check-in; and reservation. Despite Southwest performing higher in more factors than JetBlue this year, JetBlue's strong performance, broadly combined with its large advantage in aircraft and in-flight services over Southwest, has enabled JetBlue to retain its highest ranking.

J.D. Power and Associates also offered the tips to consumers regarding mobile boarding passes:
    •    Some airports provide a separate security line for mobile boarding pass travelers, greatly reducing waiting time. However, not all airports are equipped to read them. Check with your carrier to determine rules, restrictions and access prior to foregoing a paper copy.
    •    If traveling in parties of two or more, test mobile boarding pass download and viewing options before leaving for the airport. If your party includes other travelers, sticking with paper copies may be the best option.

The 2012 North America Airline Satisfaction Study measures passenger satisfaction among both business and leisure passengers of major carriers in North America. The study is based on responses from more than 13,500 passengers who flew on a major North American airline between May 2011 and April 2012. The study was fielded between July 2011 and April 2012.

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