What are US legacy airlines doing to improve their image and product – or don’t they care?

The US magazine, Consumer Reports, has once again ranked US carriers based on input from 15,000 of the publication’s readers. The news, if not inspiring, is at least consistent. Low-cost operators continue to shine.

The winner, as is the norm, is Southwest, with a reader score of 87, followed by JetBlue (84), both significantly buoyed by their continued allowance of some free baggage. Southwest topped the overall ratings, also scoring big in terms of crew attitude and general tidiness of the aircraft.

JetBlue scored well with its seating, which was judged to be the best, and further boosted by its inflight entertainment, also given high marks. 

The top group of carriers also included Alaska (79), Frontier (78) and AirTran (74), with all of the legacies clustered near the bottom. Of that group, Continental (72) scored the best and US Airways (61) came in last - a position it held in the previous survey as well - with especially poor ratings for its cabin crews (although last week’s Department of Transportation ranked the carrier second in on-time arrivals, first in baggage performance, and second in customer satisfaction among the five majors).

Bad service and fees are main complaints

While there was continued criticism of the legacy carriers’ poor service and uncomfortable seating, the issue of fees was a prominent complaint with passengers uniformly annoyed by the practice.

The survey also revealed that some 40% of those responding are flying less because of the combination of discomfort, poor service and, most notably, constantly increasing fees and charges. This is a trend that has been identified by others as well, including the airlines themselves, citing security and the Transportation Security Administration’s practices, doubtless also a factor.

Nearly half of passengers didn’t expect to pay baggage fees

There is also support for the Business Travel Coalition’s contention that the fees are poorly communicated. Some 41% of the respondents were taken by surprise when charged for luggage.

The magazine also noted that since 2007, the number of airlines included in the survey has declined and the United/Continental and Southwest/AirTran mergers will further reduce the ranks.

The survey also discovered that 93% of those travelling made their arrangements online - indicating an almost total shift to the internet for bookings and a remarkably high level.

When the legacy airlines are challenging to regain control of distribution, this signals a long road back. And, as long as passengers judge such a wide chasm between legacy and low-cost airline products, it would be wise to ensure that customers get satisfaction if they do deal directly with the airline. The combination of passengers’ perceptions of weaker products and airline expectations of higher yields through direct sales is hardly a compelling proposition.

Public tolerance of increases in ancillaries hardening

General dissatisfaction remains high and the steady increase in fees is adding an additional irritant. Otherwise there were no big headlines here. The survey preceded the recent sharp run-up of fuel costs and corresponding fare increases so it is likely that in the months to come, more potential passengers may opt out of air travel.

Perceptions of the legacy airlines in particular continue to languish. Network strength can continue to help them capture travellers, but unless there is a concerted effort to improve the product all down the line, the legacies remain exposed to third party online sales. If the product really is just a commodity, then that is arguably how it should be sold.

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