Surprise -- Airlines Again Rated Poorly for Customer Service

MSNBC: Air travelers continue to be dissatisfied with the flying experience, according to a new report from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), which evaluates the quality of U.S. products and services.

The report, released Tuesday, shows that passenger satisfaction with airlines has dropped 1.5 percent to a score of 65 on a 100-point scale – tied with newspapers for the lowest score among all 47 industries that ACSI surveys. Business travelers, which represent the most profitable segment for airlines, were the least satisfied filers with a score of 61.

David VanAmburg, managing director for ACSI, said that higher airfares and fees, coupled with a consistently poor air travel experience, are fueling customer frustrations. “We’re seeing customers experiencing overall costs going up, but the experience is not getting better,” VanAmburg said. “It’s going to create a more disgruntled public.”

Airline mergers have also impacted customer satisfaction. Continental, which last fall merged with United, saw its customer satisfaction score plunge 9.9 percent to 64. A year after absorbing Northwest Airlines, Delta saw its customer satisfaction score for 2011 fall 9.7 percent to 56 – the lowest score in the industry.

“It’s very challenging for companies of these sizes to integrate their operations quickly and seamlessly without having some negative impact on the customer,” said VanAmburg, adding that US Airways also saw a big drop in customer satisfaction in 2005 after its merger with America West.

One bright spot in the airline industry is Southwest, which leads its competitors with a customer satisfaction score of 81 – its 18th straight year at the top. VanAmburg credits Southwest’s policy of not charging for the first two checked bags as one possible reason for its superior score. Passengers who pay a fee for checked baggage registered a satisfaction score of 58 – a 3 percent decline over last year – versus 68 for passengers who don't.

Southwest also has long been known as a no-frills discount airline. “You’re not perceiving that Southwest is nickel and diming you,” said VanAmburg. “That’s the way it’s always been with Southwest.”
United saw its customer satisfaction score improve 1.7 percent to 61, tying with US Airways. American Airlines remained unchanged with a score of 63.

While airline satisfaction overall has decreased, hotel satisfaction rose 2.7 percent to a score of 77. VanAmburg said that hotels have managed to retain customers in this challenging economy by offering attractive promotions, perks and rewards to maintain a quality experience for their guests. “Chains know they have to be very competitive on price,” he said.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel-industry analyst for Forrester Research, said today’s air travelers perceive they’re paying more and receiving less. “They don’t see any response from the airlines to improve reliability, on-time performance, and provide them with the products or amenities they would like to see to make their experience better,” he said.
For example, when Continental merged with United, the airline eliminated its complimentary meals. Management had the option to raise United to Continental’s standard or bring Continental down to United’s. “They chose to bring Continental down to United,” he said.

“I think what consumers are saying is the airlines really need to start focusing on making the experience better,” Harteveldt said.


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