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Low Airline Satisfaction Scores: What Do They Tell Us?

The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) scores for airlines put me in mind of a case study in a marketing class, decades ago, about an advertising campaign that flopped. Students were asked what management should do: Change the ad message? Get a new advertising agency? Change the company’s marketing strategy? Fire the V.P. of marketing? The answer: None of the above. The solution was both simpler and more basic: The product wasn’t any good.

That’s how it is with the airlines. Survey after survey, study after study show that consumers have a low opinion of airlines’ customer service—lower, typically, than of the IRS or of the U.S. Post Office; as with the company in that old advertising case, the reason for this is straightforward. In the main coach cabin, most airlines put out a lousy product. The plain fact is that there’s nothing an airline can do to turn out a good product when stuffing customers into the industry-standard six-across seating in 737s or 320s at 30- or 32-inch pitch.

The latest ACSI findings confirm this truth. Out of 42 consumer industries, airlines scored third lowest, even below such perennial consumer gripe targets as wireless telephone services and banks. Why so low? Claes Fornell, founder and Chairman of ACSI, wrapped it up neatly: “Crowded seating, rising ticket prices, extra fees, and poor service all contribute to a rather dreary travel experience.”

ACSI scored airlines in 11 service categories. Carriers did reasonably well on “ease of the check-in process” and “ease of making a reservation,” but earned dismal scores for “quality of the loyalty program” and “seat comfort.”

Obviously, some airlines do better than others. In the latest ACSI scorings, the “usual suspects” winners were JetBlue and Southwest. The “usual suspects” losers were Delta, American, and US Airways, with United in its customary last place.

Overall, I have some reservations about these and other airline ratings. ACSI does excellent research, and I fully trust the findings. But my question for ordinary travelers is: Of what use is this latest information? You already know, from many sources, that JetBlue, Southwest, Alaska, and Virgin America are always going to outscore the giant airlines and are almost always going to give you a better trip—when they fly where you want to fly. Having more confirmation is like getting a more precise estimate of how much you lost in a burglary; it doesn’t help you get your stuff back or nab the robbers.

The sad fact is that given the choice between good or cheap airline service, most American consumers opt for cheap. Any surprise that what you get for cheap, then, isn’t very good?

Hotels did a lot better than airlines in the survey. The top scoring chains were, not surprisingly, Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt. InterContinental and Starwood were not far behind the top chains. The rankings contain three minor surprises: a relatively high score for Best Western, a relatively high score for mostly-budget Choice, and a low score of 72 for upmarket Wyndham.

The current ACSI release covered three other industry groups of peripheral interest to travel. “Consumer shipping” scored a near-top aggregate, led by FedEx and UPS, with the Post Office trailing a bit, but still outscoring the airlines. “Full service restaurants” also earned high scores, led by corporate stablemates Olive Garden and Red Lobster, and closely followed by Applebee’s and Outback Steakhouse. Among “limited service restaurants,” Subway, Papa John’s, Little Caesar, Domino’s, KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and Wendy’s were closely bunched, with Burger King, Taco Bell, and McDonald’s ranked lower. You consumers sure like your pizza.

You can download a complete report from the ACSI website.

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