Consumer Reports: Comfort and Fees Are Sore Point with Air Travelers

Comfort issues and excessive fees are sore points for air travelers and are among the major reasons many are traveling less, according to a new survey of almost 15,000 passengers by Consumer Reports.

Eight of the 10 major airlines that Consumer Reports readers rated received low scores for seat comfort. Several carriers also got low marks for other quality-of-flight measures including cabin-crew service, cleanliness, and in-flight entertainment.
Consumer Reports airline ratings were based on responses from 14,861 readers who told the Consumer Reports National Research Center about their experiences on 29,720 domestic roundtrip flights that took place from January 2010 to January 2011.

Airlines were scored based on passengers’ responses to questions regarding overall satisfaction, check-in ease, cabin-crew service, cabin cleanliness, baggage handling, seating comfort and in-flight entertainment. Consumer Reports also asked questions about charging additional fees.

Some carriers did rise above the rest. Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways topped the list with relatively high scores for overall satisfaction. Southwest was the only airline to receive top marks for check-in ease and cabin-crew service. Passengers also gave Southwest high grades for cabin cleanliness and baggage handling. It should be noted, however, that the survey was conducted before Southwest’s well-publicized problems this past April with cracks in several of its planes.

JetBlue was the only airline to outscore Southwest for seating comfort, possibly because it gives passengers more room than they’re accustomed to in this era of tightly packed planes, according to the survey. JetBlue was also the lone carrier in Consumer Reports’ ratings to earn top scores for in-flight entertainment; its seatback TV screens offer passengers 36 channels from which to choose.

At the other end of the list, bottom-ranked US Airways occupies the same unenviable spot as it did in 2007, when Consumer Reports last assessed airlines. In addition to its low overall score, survey respondents gave it the worst marks of any airline for cabin-crew service.

The proliferation of added fees at or after check-in by many carriers further contributes to passengers’ low opinion of today’s flying experience, and even to their decision of whether to fly at all. Forty percent of survey respondents who said that they are flying less these days gave increased fees as the major reason—far more than those who blamed flight delays, poor service, or any other annoyance.

“What we found is that paying fewer additional fees generally translates into a passenger having higher overall satisfaction with an airline,” said Mark Kotkin, a director of survey research at Consumer Reports.

As with overall satisfaction, airlines differ widely in how likely they are to saddle travelers with extra fees. For example, 93 percent of the Southwest passengers surveyed had avoided all of the fees that Consumer Reports asked about. Far fewer travelers were as lucky with their experiences at Continental Airlines (57 percent), JetBlue Airways (56 percent), Delta Air Lines (56 percent), American Airlines (55 percent), United Airlines (48 percent), US Airways (46 percent), Alaska Airlines (44 percent), Frontier Airlines (43 percent) and AirTran Airways (33 percent). AirTran passengers were also among those that frequently reported paying multiple additional fees—43 percent of AirTran passengers reported paying one fee, 21 percent paid two, and 3 percent, three or more fees.

Consumer Reports also offered consumers advice on how to get low fares.

Use social networks. Many airlines tweet deals. Two examples are @FrontierSale and @JetBlueCheeps, where CR found a $10 one-way fare from San Francisco to Long Beach, Calif. But seats are limited. By some accounts, @UnitedAirlines’ Tware fares sell out within 2 hours.

Sign up for promo codes. If you’re a member of an airline’s frequent-flyer program, you can often sign up for special promotion codes, which provide discounts from 10 to 50 percent. Promo alerts can be sent to you via e-mail, RSS feeds, Twitter, Jaiku, Facebook, and other channels. But the deals expire quickly, so you’ll have to act fast. The trade-off? Your e-mail inbox can get flooded with offers that don’t interest you.

Work the Web. More than 70 percent of respondents booked their own flights directly on an airline’s website. A smaller number, 55 percent, compared fares on other websites. For the best possible deals, you should cast that wider net. Start with websites that allow you to compare the deals from multiple airlines, such as Airfarewatchdog and Kayak. Also try travel-agency sites, such as CheapTickets, Expedia, and Travelocity. If you’re a bit more adventurous, Hotwire and, where you don’t know which airline you’re flying until after you book, are another option.

Book early or late. You don’t need to book more than 90 days in advance. Booking about 21 days before your trip will usually get you a good fare. Price-comparison sites often let you sign up for alerts that will tell you when prices drop. Many sales are posted late Monday or early Tuesday making it a good time to shop, but bargains can appear at any time.

Be flexible. Shifting dates by a day or two often allows you to nab a much lower price. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday are generally the cheapest days to fly. If you’re traveling with a group, consider splitting up your party. If you have four in your group and there are only two cheap seats available, online reservation systems will give everyone higher-price seats. Instead, check the price for one, two, and three seats on the plane, as well as for all four before booking.

The complete ratings chart, and additional findings from Consumer Reports latest airline carrier survey are featured in the June issue of Consumer Reports magazine.



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