ZAGAT frequent flyer survey; two thirds flew more than in 2008, but green credentials less important

The annual ZAGAT survey of the world’s major airlines has just been released. The results hold few surprises and the perennial favorites continue to occupy expected positions. But the survey’s contributors give it added importance because they are representative of the group of (predominantly American) frequent flyers who constitute the airlines’ key customers. Over two thirds were flying as much or more than two years ago, but sensitivity towards airline efforts on the environment ranked lower than previously.

The respondents, 80% of whom were aged 30-60+, took an average of 17.4 flights per year, making them far more than occasional observers.

Asian and Middle East airlines lead premium quality

A perfect score for any category was 30, and true to form, the highest score, 28, was achieved by Singapore Airlines for its premium cabins, scoring 24 in economy. All of the top five international carriers were from either Asia or the Gulf.

In the US domestic market, the highest premium score, 21, was given to Continental (merger partner United came in fourth, at 16) and the top economy ranking, also 21, was earned by Virgin America, albeit in a different category; midsized versus large domestic carrier.

In general, three midsized carriers, Virgin America, Hawaiian and Alaska, outscored their larger network competitors and all of the top rated international carriers outscored their US counterparts.

Southwest continues to head up numerous lists including top website, best value, best in on-time customer perception, best luggage policy and best check-in experience. Despite all those who predict that, as a mature carrier, Southwest will slide, there is no evidence that consumers concur.

US airlines’ international price leadership

The one category in which US legacies did score well is in the “Best Value - International” list, which was led by American and followed by Delta, Continental, Virgin Atlantic and BA. Since none had correspondingly high service scores, price was apparently the primary component in the “value” assessment. Whether this truly represents actual pricing differentials or is skewed by local American conditions in some way is unclear.

When ranking Frequent Flier programmes, none of the US majors made the top five. The list was dominated (22) by Virgin Atlantic, with Southwest, Alaska, Lufthansa/Swiss and Virgin America completing the group.

Of some interest was the “Best Luggage Policy-Domestic”. The top two were Southwest and JetBlue, expected because of their still-free allowance. However, the next three were Continental, American and United, which have essentially identical policies.

When asked what effect baggage fees have on their decisions, 45% choose airlines with no fees and 42% are exempt due to status with the carrier, explaining the responses to the preceding question. One-third carries only hand luggage, so a change in policy regarding carry-on baggage would probably cause some significant backlash.

As has been the case for some years now, the alternative-model airlines like Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America, are over-represented vis-à-vis their network peers, indicating that their products and services continue to be more desirable.

Frequent flyers are flying more frequently – good news for the airlines

Moving away from the rankings, over two thirds of the respondents were flying more, or the same number of times, since the downturn. This has to be a good sign, both for the airlines and as a signal that the economy has some strength in it. However they are still not flying as often as they did in 2007.

In 2010, 76% booked using online services -a number that has remained relatively constant since 2007, as has the 60% or so which books through the airlines’ own sites. One booking feature which has changed is the number who book “through work”; this has increased from 2% in 2007 to 10% in 2010, perhaps suggesting greater penetration of corporate deals.

Two-thirds of the respondents use frequent flyer miles for free flights, with less than 30% using them for upgrades – perhaps testament to the scarcity of upgrades available.

Only 7% buy food on board

Interestingly, 74% said that they do not or would not willingly pay for amenities on board such as soft drinks, pillows, blankets and snacks. And on flights where food is desired but not provided, 55% purchase food at the airport while only 7% buy onboard. A hardy 6% opt to “go hungry”. The airlines may be saving some costs by reducing inflight catering, but they clearly have yet to work out – if that is a goal – how to generate additional revenues as a result. Perhaps doing deals with airport outlets is the only option.

Green is no longer gold

Finally, for these regular flyers the prime determinant in airline choice is routing, followed by ticket price and previous experience with the airline. All of those factors ranked above 50% in the selection criteria. The next set of parameters, accounting for between 40 and 50% of the decision were seating comfort, schedule and frequent flyer programme.

But the environment seems to have lost some glitter in the past couple of years. In 2008, 30% of respondents said their choice of airline would be influenced by how “green” the airline was perceived to be; by 2010, this number has fallen to 24% (the question: ”If particular airlines introduced measures to become more “green” or eco-friendly, would you be more likely to fly with them?).

IFE does not influence choice – at least while systems are generally similar

Aircraft type mattered only 13% of the time and the much-touted IFE systems affect only 8% of the choice process.

The study also asked about airport satisfaction, a concern with few options for most. However, in areas with multiple airports, Washington Reagan and Baltimore both outscored Washington Dulles; Chicago Midway was preferred above O’Hare as was Ft. Lauderdale over Miami. In the important New York market, the preferences were Newark, JFK and, in dead last, LaGuardia. If it is any consolation to LaGuardia, all three clustered very near the bottom of the list.

Amongst the responder comments that were included in the report, the general state of things may have been encapsulated by the travellers who wrote, “Who made them mad at their customers?” or, “My bags get better service, but they pay extra.”

There’s always next year.

ZAGAT Survey describes itself as “the world's leading provider of consumer survey-based information on where to eat, drink, stay & play worldwide”, surveying some 375,000 people annually, mostly in the food and accommodation areas.

Full results are available at www.zagat.com.

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