Despite recent headlines, travellers report more satisfaction with airlines: J.D. Power survey

Despite recent high-profile examples of outrageous air travel incidents, customers say they are more satisfied than ever with the service they get from airlines, a new survey suggests.

Costs are the biggest factor in customer satisfaction, J.D. Power says

North American airlines are doing a better job of avoiding flight delays and minimizing the inconvenience when they happen, J.D. Power says. (Graham Barclay/Bloomberg)

Despite recent high-profile examples of outrageous air travel incidents, customers say they are more satisfied than ever with the service they get from airlines, a new survey suggests.

That was one of the main takeaways of a survey from market research firm J.D. Power released Wednesday. Every year the company surveys passengers who have flown on a major North American carrier in the past year. For the 2017 survey, the company surveyed more than 11,000 people who flew between March 2016 and March 2017.

The airlines are graded on everything from prices to the check-in and boarding process, to inflight services and other frills. J.D. Power then adds the numbers up and gives each airline a score out of 1,000.

Of the major North American carriers, the average score was 756 this year — up 30 points from 2016's level. 

Air Canada and WestJet fare poorly

But the numbers suggest not all airlines are trending in the same direction — and Canadian airlines are falling behind their U.S. counterparts.

With a score of 765, Alaska Airlines maintained its 10-year streak atop the list, followed by Delta at 758. Air Canada scored the lowest in the category, with a score of 709.

In the discount space, Southwest leapfrogged to No. 1 with a score of 807, bypassing previous leader JetBlue. WestJet was the second-lowest scoring airline in the category at 736 points.

When asked for comment by CBC News, Air Canada noted that its score had improved since last year, adding that "customer engagement is a core priority."

"We continue to make substantial investments in our international and North American fleets, which have many features customers appreciate," the airline said.

In a statement, WestJet said it had little to say about the survey because J.D. Power requires airlines to purchase the report in order to analyze the results. "Because the survey is so heavily weighted to the U.S. consumer, it doesn't make sense for us to purchase it, and therefore, with no data to study we're at a disadvantage in trying to account for or explain the results," a spokesperson with the airline said.

Michael Taylor, J.D. Power's travel practice lead, told CBC News in an interview that Canadian airlines suffer from a public perception that they are expensive — when in reality that's not necessarily the case.

In general, however, they score better with consumers based on in-flight frills such as entertainment, food and beverage options. "People want to be entertained in flights," he said. "The more you can allow them to do that, that's going to make the flight more pleasant."

Flyers like low costs

Costs are the biggest factor in customer satisfaction, Taylor said, which explains why discount carriers generally score better. But traditional carriers are narrowing the gap.

The average airline ticket for travel within North America cost $349 US last year, down 8.5 per cent. But it's not just prices that explain the overall improvement. Better on-time performance, fewer lost bags, historically low bump rates and high scores for flight crews also contribute to the uptick, the report said.

A common bugaboo — a lack of storage bins on planes — is becoming less of a problem, as only 14 per cent of those surveyed reported that being a problem this year. Young travellers were far more likely to complain about a lack of storage than older travellers were.

Despite high-profile recent incidents, on the whole travellers reported that they are more satisfied with airlines this year. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

And while another major complaint — bumping from flights — has declined to a record low, when it happens it has the greatest negative influence on overall satisfaction, J.D. Power said.

The study comes at an interesting time, in that it doesn't include opinions gathered after the incident in April in which United forcibly dragged a customer off an oversold plane, setting off a firestorm of controversy over the industry as a whole.

But incidents like that are exceptions rather than the rule in air travel, Taylor said. "It's impossible to think about airline customer satisfaction without replaying the recent images of a passenger being dragged from a seat, but our data shows that, as a whole, the airline industry has been making marked improvements in customer satisfaction across a variety of metrics, from ticket cost to flight crew."

But Taylor notes that airlines still have a long way to go. "The industry itself is getting its act together," he said, "but hotels and rental cars are certainly doing a better job."

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