Study: Service Tops Amenities for Flyers

Study: Service Tops Amenities for Flyers

People and processes, not peanuts and pillows, make a difference when it comes to satisfying airline passengers, according to the JD Power and Associates 2006 North America Airline Satisfaction Study.

During a period of major cost-cutting by many carriers, increasing ticket prices and overbooked flights, the study found that airlines focusing on their people and processes have the highest passenger satisfaction.

The study was based on responses from 9,334 passengers who flew on a major North American airline between January and May 2006. Overall customer satisfaction was measured based on performance in seven factors (in order of importance): cost and fees; flight crew; in-flight services; check-in; boarding/deplaning/baggage; aircraft; and flight reservation.

“All of the airlines are struggling operationally, but that doesn’t mean that passengers have to suffer too,” said Linda Hirneise, executive director of the travel practice at JD Power and Associates.

“The airlines that have high passenger satisfaction have two things in common: They have processes in place to ensure a consistent, positive travel experience, and they have the right people working for them, who make the flying experience a pleasurable one for their passengers,” said Hirneise.

The study found that “process” factors, such as check-in, how passengers board the plane and how baggage is delivered at the destination; and “people” factors, such as hiring the right people and training and enabling them to be successful, are what differentiate carriers in the eyes of passengers.

As per the findings, JetBlue Airways ranked highest in customer satisfaction among low-cost carriers —– defined as airlines that operate single-cabin aircraft with typically low fares. JetBlue received top ratings across all seven customer satisfaction factors, but performed particularly well in those factors pertaining to people and processes. JetBlue achieved an overall satisfaction index score of 820 of a possible 1,000 points — 81 points above the segment average. Southwest Airlines followed JetBlue in the low-cost airlines rankings.

Continental Airlines, which ranks highest in the traditional network airlines segment — airlines that operate multi-cabin aircraft and use multiple airport hubs — excels in the check-in, in-flight service, and cost and fees factors. Continental performed particularly well satisfying business passengers, in part due to the perks of its OnePass program. Delta Airlines closely followed Continental in the segment, while American Airlines ranked third.

“The traditional network airlines have had a particularly difficult time connecting with passengers the past few years, struggling with increasing fuel costs, competition from discounters, massive layoffs and dramatic cost cutting,” said Hirneise. “However, these carriers still have a strong base of customers who value the flexibility of flight legs and additional cabin classes traditional airlines offer. The challenges for the traditional carriers are to manage customer expectations as amenities that used to be expected on such carriers have either disappeared or now require a fee. These carriers also must work to keep employees motivated in the wake of painful cost cutting.”

The study found that passengers who book their reservations online through the airlines’ Web sites report higher satisfaction than those who book at an independent travel Web site or over the phone. In addition, passengers who check in for their flight online or at electronic check-in kiosks at the airport have higher satisfaction levels and save more time during the check-in process than those who use the ticket counter or curbside check-in.

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