Passenger satisfaction with airlines climbs, despite more feesAirlines can charge us for everything from peanuts to pillows and apparently, we still love them regardless. At least that's the finding of a new survey, which found that overall satisfaction with airlines improved last year, even as carriers hit passengers with more ancillary fees. Apparently the more they zing us, the more we like it.

The findings -- which gave most airlines the highest satisfaction ratings since 2007 -- surprised even seasoned researchers at J.D. Power and Associates, a Westlake Village, Calif.-based firm that has conducted an airline satisfaction survey for years.

"With satisfaction going up at a time when there seems to be a large amount of discontent, we did raise an eyebrow and went to double check our math," said Stuart Greif, vice president of the firm's global travel practice.

The survey marked the first time since carriers began charging fees (in 2006) for services that used to be free -- such as a particular seat assignment, changing a ticket, meals, and bringing pets aboard -- that more passengers reported being satisfied with the level of service they received when flying.

But that doesn't mean that travelers are necessarily singing airlines' praises.

"Even with this improvement, airlines are still behind where they were a number of years ago before the proliferation of fees," Greif said.

And airlines still rank lower in performance than other travel industries, including hotels and rental cars, Greif said, and farther still down the totem pole than the generally loathed business categories such as insurance and automotive.

And, he added, that the findings shouldn't be interpreted that travelers like the new fees, just that they're resigned to paying extra charges.

What remains to be seen is if carriers institute even more fees -- such as Spirit Airlines' plan to charge passengers for carry-on bags that don't fit under the seat in front of them -- will consumers continue to refrain from venting their ire to pollsters.

In the survey released today, the airline industry as a whole received 673 points out of 1,000, higher than the 658 points it charted in 2009, and the 668 it registered in 2008.

In 2007, the public's overall satisfaction with airline carriers was higher, coming in at 687 out of 1,000, and at 692 in 2006 -- the highest since airlines started instituting fees in an attempt to earn revenues lost to higher oil prices and a lagging economy.

In some ways, the poor economy helped carriers gain back some customer love.

With fewer planes in the air, more flights are on time than at any period in the last seven years. And with many people choosing not to fly -- and those who do deciding not to check bags to avoid fees -- airlines are losing less luggage. Base fares also plummeted as airlines attempted to lure travelers back to the skies.

New services offered by airlines in recent years -- such as allowing passengers to print out boarding passes at home up to 24 hours before a flight -- are also contributing to greater public contentment, according to data gleaned from pollsters who interviewed 12,300 passengers online who flew on a North American airline between April 2009 and April 2010.

The survey measured customer satisfaction in seven categories including costs and fees, flight crew, in-flight services, aircraft, boarding/deplaning/baggage, check in and reservations. Among these categories, fees accounted for only 29% of the overall importance of an airlines' score, Greif said.

Passengers were most pleased with Alaska Airlines, awarding the carrier first place among traditional network airlines for the third year in a row, with 699 points out of 1,000, the survey found. Continental came in second, with 672 points, and American third, with 642 points.

Alaska Airlines guarantees baggage delivery within 25 minutes, or passengers are awarded vouchers or frequent flier points.

"Here's an airline that says 'we understand that time matters and that baggage claim is an issue,'" said Greif.

Clocking in at first place among low-cost carriers for the fifth year in a row, with 764 points out of 1,000, was JetBlue Airways -- which markets itself to travelers with its "passenger bill of rights," even though its fares are not always lower than competitors. Southwest came in second with 742 points and WestJet third with 740 points.

With the economy improving, it's up in the air whether carriers can continue this upward climb in customer satisfaction.

Air fares are increasing, as are the number of travelers being bumped off of flights, even as more people return to the skies.

"As you look at the year ahead," Greif said, "there are some real headwinds that could cause turbulence for passengers."

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