Customer satisfaction with airlines is actually at a 20-year high, survey finds

April 20, 2015, 2:37 PM UTC
A JetBlue plane flies May 1, 2014 in flight over the United States.
Preston Rescigno Getty Images

JetBlue Airways delivered the best customer service among major airlines last year, narrowly edging out rival Southwest Airlines (LUV), according to a new survey.

Meanwhile, Hilton (HLT), Hyatt (H), and Marriott (MAR) were locked in a rare three-way tie for first place in the hotel category.

The findings are part of the closely watched American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) customer service rankings for travel companies, which today named the top airlines, hotels and online travel agencies.

But as is often the case with these studies, the worst companies are sure to draw the most attention.

Among hotels, Wyndham (WYN) and Motel 6 rounded out the bottom, with cumulative scores of 68 and 63 out of a possible 100, respectively. Frontier Airlines (58) and Spirit Airlines (54) (SAVE), both newcomers to the study, found themselves in the ACSI airline basement.

Airline service: getting better?

1. JetBlue (81) (JBLU)
2. Southwest (78)
3. Alaska (75) (ALK)
4. Delta (71) (DAL)
5. American (66) (AAL)
6. Allegiant (65) (ALGTFROT)
7. United (60)
8. Frontier (58)
9. Spirit (54)

Perhaps the biggest surprise in this annual customer experience survey is that satisfaction levels rose by an impressive three percentage points for airlines to an average score of 71 – the highest level since the ACSI began in 1994.

On the face of it, that seems to contradict the conventional wisdom that airline service is on the decline. Two recent studies, one by Wichita State University, and the other a report by the Department of Transportation, suggest near-record numbers of passengers are unhappy with service and that service is deteriorating.

But there’s an explanation, says Forrest Morgeson, the ACSI research director. The major legacy carriers’ scores — American Airlines (66), Delta Air Lines (71) and United (60) — were unchanged from 2013.

“The biggest positive change is for the ‘all others’ category, which was up four percent,” he says. “That includes the smaller carriers not individually measured in ACSI. It is these smaller carriers that are largely responsible for the improvement in the airline industry.”

In other words, if you’re flying on one of the dominant legacy carriers, you’ll continue to get the same substandard service to which you’re accustomed. To put their scores into a little perspective, if this were a school report card, American and United would have to repeat the grade and Delta would barely squeak by.

United, the worst-performing of the legacy airlines, had the added humiliation of being beaten by Allegiant, which belongs to a group of high-fee, low-service carriers that call themselves “ultra low cost” airlines.

But that isn’t the worst of it. Frontier and Spirit scored more than 10 points below the industry average. Their scores aren’t just the worst in the airline industry, but the worst in any industry ranked by the ACSI.

Of all the companies ranked by the ACSI, Spirit is statistically tied for last place with Time Warner Cable.

In fact, the bottom 10 of the ACSI, which benchmarks more than 300 companies, is home to several well-known travel brands.

10. WellPoint (66)
9. Aetna (65)
9. Allegiant Air (65)
9. AT&T (U-verse) (ISP) (65)
9. CenturyLink (ISP) (65)
9. Time Warner Cable (Fixed Line Telephone) (65)
8. Cox Communications (ISP) (64)
7. Cox Communications (TV) (63)
7. Motel 6 (63)
6. Charter Communications (ISP) (61)
5. Charter Communications (TV) (60)
5. Comcast (TV) (60)
5. United Airlines (60)
4. Frontier Airlines (58)
3. Comcast (ISP) (57)
2. Time Warner Cable (TV) (56)
1. Spirit Airlines (54)
1. Time Warner Cable (ISP) (54)

The average ACSI score is 75.

“Frontier and Spirit’s scores would place them in the bottom third of the cable and satellite TV industry, which is generally and historically the poorest-performing industry in ACSI,” says Morgeson. “What this indicates is that, were they given the choice of another carrier at a similar price flying the same route, consumers would most likely choose another carrier. In other words, customer loyalty for these two airlines is driven by necessity and price, not a real commitment to the brand.”

Hotels hold steady

1. Hilton (80)
1. Hyatt (80)
1. Marriott (80)
2. InterContinental (76)
2. La Quinta (76)
2. Starwood (76)
3. Best Western (74)
4. Choice (73)
5. Wyndham (68)
6. Motel 6 (63)

The hotel category, on the other hand, was unchanged from 2013, with a cumulative score of 75 out of 100. For the first time since 2008, there was a three-way tie for first place (and between the same companies, no less) and for the first time ever, a three-way tie for second place. That suggests a remarkably competitive hotel industry, particularly among full-service chains.

“The similarity in scores between Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt is not that surprising,” says Morgeson. “They are primarily competing with one another in terms of their offerings to consumers, and as such provide similar products and services at similar prices.”

Even the biggest drop among the hotels, Wyndham’s almost six percentage point slide last year, isn’t a shocker when compared against its historical customer service record.

“While the drop for Wyndham is substantial, the company has tended to score in the high 60s and low 70s over the last 20 years,” notes Morgeson.

How about online travel agencies?

The online travel agencies sector is in total chaos this year, with Expedia’s planned acquisition of its two biggest rivals, Orbitz and Travelocity. Given the probability that these three agencies will soon be a single company, their rankings are irrelevant.

Still, it’s worth noting that Expedia’s customer service score edged up a point to a respectable score of 77. But Morgeson suggests it may not last.

“In general, merger activity tends to have a negative impact on customer service and customer satisfaction, as merging companies tend to try to maximize profitability by reducing staff and integrating systems,” he adds. That doesn’t bode well for customers of Expedia, or the companies it is on the verge of acquiring.

The 2014 ACSI numbers are a sobering reminder that, too often, the travel industry puts profits over people.

That’s one reason why JetBlue Airways is unlikely to retain its title next year. It recently announced new policies designed to appease investors but which will result in more fees and less personal space for some passengers. And those could be a drag on its service scores.

Bottom line: if you expect good customer service when you travel, you’ll pay a price.