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America's Best Airlines

Flying High - America's Best Airlines According to JD Power

People and processes, not peanuts and pillows, make a difference when it comes to satisfying airline passengers, according to J.D. Power and Associates' 2006 North America Airline Satisfaction Study released recently.

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

“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 J.D. 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.”

The study is based on responses from 9,334 passengers who flew on a major North American airline between January and May 2006. Overall customer satisfaction is 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. The study finds 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.

“The highest ranked airline in each segment demonstrate that serving the customer has its rewards, and acts as a model for those who aspire to excellence,” said Tom Henricks, president, Aviation Week.

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

“JetBlue is true to its business model, in which it promises its passengers a comfortable seat with a television monitor, peanuts and service with a smile,” Hirneise said.  “They’ve never offered services such as in-flight meals, but they make up for it with amenities passengers truly value and with their service.”

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 performs particularly well satisfying business passengers, in part due to the perks of its OnePass frequent flyer program. Delta Airlines closely follows Continental in the segment, while American Airlines ranks 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.”

While the burden of satisfying passengers rests on the airline, there are some steps passengers can take to make their flying experience more enjoyable. The study finds that passengers who book their reservations online through the airline’s Web site 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.

“The message for passengers is to be prepared when you fly,” said Hirneise. “Give yourself plenty of time, and take advantage of the time-saving opportunities the airlines offer by printing your boarding pass before you head to the airport and using the express lines that many airlines offer for checking baggage. Also, as more carriers reduce their offerings in favor of lower operating costs, find out what amenities are available on your flight, and which are not, so you can plan accordingly. Most flights do not serve meals, so you may want to pick up a meal or a snack in the airport before you board the plane. If the flight doesn’t have pillows and blankets, you might want consider packing those items. These steps will help make the flight a more enjoyable experience.”

The 2006 North America Airline Satisfaction Study measures customer satisfaction of both business and leisure travelers with major North American carriers that earn at least $1 billion a year in passenger revenue.

(Source: JD Power)