US airline service quality: Room for improvement


In a seemingly unending stream, yet another measure of North American carriers has been released; this time by JD Power and associates. The results are based on a yearlong effort (Apr-2009 to Apr-2010) that involved more than 12,300 respondents and provided separate categories for legacy and low-cost operators.

  • JD Power and associates released a ranking of North American carriers based on a yearlong survey involving over 12,300 respondents.
  • The survey assessed airlines in seven key areas, including reservations, check-in, boarding, aircraft, service, and costs and fees.
  • Overall, there was a slight improvement in airline performance compared to the previous year, but the legacy carriers still lagged behind low-cost carriers.
  • Alaska Airlines ranked highest among legacy carriers, while JetBlue topped the low-cost category.
  • Passengers in middle seats tended to rate airlines lower, and a majority of legacy passengers still desired inflight meals.
  • Approximately half of the respondents believed that fees and charges for goods and services were too high.

Based on a 1,000 point scale, each airline was ranked on the basis of assessments in seven key areas; reservations, check-in, boarding, aircraft, service and costs and fees. Results in each category were then combined to create an overall score and assigned a more easily understood 5 point general rating. Full results are available on JD Power website.

Some Improvement

On the positive side, and despite significant obstacles and hardships over the period in question, there was a slight (15 point out of 1,000) improvement over 2009. Doubtless, the carriers will pounce upon this increase as a sign that they are, indeed, on an upward trajectory.

Carrier Score Rank
Alaska 699 5
Continental 672 4
American 642 3
Delta 640 3
Air Canada 636 3
United 630 3
US Airways 613 2
Low Cost
JetBlue 764 5
Southwest 742 3
WestJet 740 3
Air Tran 704 2
Frontier 688 2

But overall, no real change

While some overall improvement may have been registered, the players and business models reflect previous results of this and other surveys.

  • The highest score registered by a legacy player (699) bested only one of the LCC participants-by 11 points.
  • The legacy average of 642 lagged the low cost average of 735 by nearly 100 points-and as a group, they significantly outdid Alaska's 699.
  • Southwest and American, while both ranked as 3s in the overall picture, were actually separated by a 100 point raw score difference.
  • The top airlines in each category have occupied a similar position in numerous other surveys as well, indicating that their performance is, indeed, consistently better.

Interesting tidbits

The press release cited a few other interesting trends.

  • Passengers in a middle seat almost always ranked the carrier lower than those at the window or aisle. This trend was especially pronounced if the passenger was an "elite" with the carrier in question. Note to carriers: your best customers do not like to be stuck in the middle;
  • Roughly 65% of legacy passengers still would like to have inflight meals. Apparently, despite all the jokes about airline food over decades, it is still preferable to bring it or buy it;
  • About half of those responding believe that fees and charges for goods and services are too high;
  • Sixty-percent of those traveling check a bag and those airlines not charging for the first bag benefit from the policy. Not surprisingly, Southwest, with virtually no fees or charges, ranks exceptionally well by comparison.

So the survey contains a modicum of good news and virtually no new news, with those on top retaining their position and, of the two business models, the low cost operators still maintaining a sizable edge.

As on one's school report card, the "room for improvement" box is still checked.

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