Report Shows Flyers More Satisfied with U.S. Airlines. Really?

a row of seats on an airplane

Is there any reason to think that travelers are increasingly satisfied with U.S. airlines?

The answer is “Yes!” according to the results of the latest edition of the American Customer Satisfaction Index, an independent benchmarking study developed at the University of Michigan, which was released this week.

According to the report, “Passenger satisfaction with airlines is up 4.2% to 75 on a scale of 0 to 100.” So, a nice year-over-year improvement.

The big picture, however, is less rosy: “The category remains mired within the bottom one-third of industries tracked by the American Customer Satisfaction Index.” In other words, airlines are held in the same low esteem as hospitals, just above the post office and health-insurance providers, and just below gas stations and Internet news and opinion publishers.

There was no where to go but up.

Here’s how individual airlines scored on ACSI’s 100-point scale, ranked from best to worst, showing both their latest scores and the changes versus last year:

  • JetBlue – 82, up 2 points
  • Southwest – 80, no change
  • Alaska – 78, up 1 point
  • American – 76, up 6 points
  • Delta – 76, up 7 points
  • Allegiant – 71, up 9 points
  • United – 70, up 3 points
  • Frontier – 63, down 5 points
  • Spirit – 61, down 2 points

JetBlue and Southwest on top, and Frontier and Spirit on the bottom. No great surprises there.

And here are the scores for the benchmarks used to rate the airlines, again showing both the current score and the year-over-year change:

  • Ease of check in – 82, up 1 point
  • Ease of booking – 82, up 2 points
  • Flight crew – 81, up 2 points
  • On time arrival – 81, up 2 points
  • Website satisfaction – 81, up 2 points
  • Baggage handling – 80, up 3 points
  • Boarding experience – 79, up 1 point
  • Call center satisfaction – 78, up 3 points
  • Flight schedules – 77, up 2 points
  • Loyalty program – 76, up 3 points
  • Inflight services – 74, up 3 points
  • Seat comfort – 71, up 4 points

The scores are based on customer feedback gleaned from 180,000 interviews. So the sample should meet any reasonable standard of statistical significance. And independent data confirms that airlines have made measurable improvements in such areas as on-time arrivals and baggage handling.

But there are other factors where the increase in customer satisfaction seems puzzling. Website satisfaction? I’m not aware of any particular improvements in the airlines’ sites that would account for a better customer experience. And in the areas of loyalty programs and seat comfort, the satisfaction increases seem startlingly at odds with the facts. Mileage programs have been significantly devalued during the past several years. And “crusher seats” and shrinking legroom have made seating, at least in coach, where the great majority of travelers sit, an ever-more agonizing experience.

Such disconnects might point to a larger truth about satisfaction scores and trends: As services deteriorate, consumers lower their expectations, and satisfaction scores rise.

In short, what we may be seeing here is less an improvement on the part of the airlines than a lessening of consumers’ expectations, as they become acclimated to shoddier and shoddier service.

Reader Reality Check

How satisfied are you with the airlines?


  1. Christian says

    As someone who’s pretty unhappy with airlines in general, and domestic legacy airlines in particular, this seems really counterintuitive. I’m in total agreement with you on what seems right and massively wrong with this survey. If frequent flyer programs have gotten better, for instance, why are the airlines having trouble getting people to sign up for cobranded credit cards? People should be more inclined to gather the currency of these supposedly improved programs, not less.

    • Jason Brandt Lewis says

      @Christian — in re: “If frequent flyer programs have gotten better, for instance, why are the airlines having trouble getting people to sign up for cobranded credit cards?”

      Personally, I tend to think one has little to do with the other, but rather consumers are finding greater value in credit cards with *transferable* points (Amex MR, Chase UR, Citi TYP, and the SPG-Amex Starpoints).

  2. Jason Brandt Lewis says

    It often seems to me — when it comes to “customer satisfaction ratings” of [almost] any kind — that one can find a survey, or a review, to show whatever you want: “Don’t like this one? Wait a moment for a new one to get published…”

    For example, one often reads that Virgin America and Alaska frequently are ranked 1-2 in consumer satisfaction surveys, yet here VX is strangely absent. (They haven’t disappeared yet!)

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