Travelers Say: For Friendly Skies, Don't Pick a U.S. Airline

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Measuring satisfaction can be a tricky business, and nowhere is that trickier than in the airline industry, known for delays, bad food and uncomfortable seats.

It's far easier to measure the things that can lead to dissatisfaction -- how long travelers are stuck on the tarmac, how many flights are overbooked, the average wait time at a check-in counter. But there are a handful of studies that attempt to provide insight for travelers.

How do U.S. airlines stack up to their peers worldwide? In a word, horribly.

Travelers only have to look to the 2012 World Airline Awards to see that in the ranking of all the world's airlines, the U.S. simply is losing altitude. The first U.S carrier appears at slot 49. That airline, Alaska Airlines, earned the right to be rated as the top North American carrier, too. Yes, folks, the 49th best airline in the world is No. 1 here at home.

Service With a Strained Smile

Alaska Airlines shows up again in the annual North America Airline survey by J.D. Power & Associates where the carrier again earns the top spot (without any of the 48 international peers to stand in its way). The survey offers a closer look at how our home-country fleet is serving our needs.

Evidently satisfaction is improving. Sort of.

J.D. Power found that customers are slightly more satisfied with the ancillary fees associated with traveling -- but not because those fees have decreased, but because customers have become resigned to them.

Travelers are also happier -- again, just slightly -- with the check-in experience than they were when asked last year. It's not that check-in has gotten easier. It's primarily because more passengers are bypassing the counter entirely to use mobile tools and check-in kiosks.

And if it seems like more airline personnel are smiling these days, it's not your imagination -- it's good business. The J.D. Power study found that travelers greeted with a smile were more satisfied than those who weren't. (If you want to avoid the rudest airlines, Airfarewatchdog.com's study can help guide you toward happier carriers.) Though smiles and upbeat employees probably aren't as helpful as on-time departures and luggage that makes it to the final destination on time.

How Airlines Really Doing

Perhaps the most accurate portrayal of the industry comes from Purdue University, which tracks airline quality in its Airline Quality Rating report.

That monthly study tracks 15 different aspects of airline travel that impact customers, including on-time arrivals, mishandled baggage, and overbooked flights, as well as how pets are handled, discrimination complaints, and a variety of ticketing and booking woes. Award categories run the gamut from best airline to best cabin to best seats, and votes on staff service, lounges, and catering. It's offers a straight-up quantitative measure of performance factors and is a must-read for frequent travelers.

Among other findings, AQR reports that customer complaints increased from 2011 to 2012, as did the number of customers bumped from flights.

The AQR report found Virgin America to be the highest-performing among the 14 U.S.-based carriers it studied. The California-based airline is 25 percent owned by The Virgin Group, and was designed by British entrepreneur Richard Branson.

And how did Alaska Airlines, the top dog from the J.D. Power study and World Airline Awards' best North American airline, fare in AQR's assessment? Not so well. The AQR report reveals that the survey darling of the year, Alaska Airlines, actually had an increase of bumped passengers and a higher rate of mishandled baggage than in 2011.

Add International Flavor to Your Domestic Travel

What's a traveler to do? With the expansion of international carriers in the North American market, it's becoming easier to avoid the U.S.-based carriers altogether.

Websites like Airline Network News & Analysis provide information on new routes. Booking flights on the first few days of a new route offers savings similar to seeing a play when it's in previews.
Experimenting with partner carriers in rewards programs can also reveal opportunities on little-known airlines.

Lastly, avoid getting socked with surprise fees. A site like Kayak, which maintains a list of fees for the major carriers, with links to each airline's fee policies worldwide, can help travelers understand baggage and other fees, and avoid surprises at the check-in counter.

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17 Comments

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jlizm

My problem is that no airlines fly to Ireland from Texas and so the long flights from Texas to Newark and elsewhere are not fun but the real fact is the slow return home to late in the evening when most flights land before noon. American flights need to be more on time and its returns need to be more precise. We do not have the best airlines in the world and the food leaves a lot to be desired.

June 09 2013 at 7:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
thanadar

The best airline I've experienced in years is Emirates Air. For price and service, US airlines aren't even in their league.

May 29 2013 at 1:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to thanadar's comment
setanta54s_back

hope yer emirate pilot doesn't have an allah akbar moment.
and yes it has happened before but not YET on emirates.

May 29 2013 at 1:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sappy

Typical of Americans to believe that everything in America is "the Best": healthcare, food, roads, airlines, etc...because most Americans don't travel around the world and see how the world is beating us hands down. Try a foreign airline and you'll be dumbfounded as to why we take the awful service American airlines hands us.

May 29 2013 at 1:04 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to sappy's comment
setanta54s_back

i truly HOPE you are residing IN THE NATION of YOUR CHOICE.
and it better not be within the USA.
and there's NO WAY on earth .in HEAVEN or hell,that THE WORLD is ""beating US hands down".

and be sure and search IT ALL OUT with your superior turd world airlines HOW MUCH employee REGULATIONS,UNIONS, bs environMENTAL LAWS etc.
and DEFINITELY you are the 1st to piss and moan about the PLIGHT OF THE AMERICAN "WORKER' as well.
right ?

May 29 2013 at 1:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rrboyle

Lufthansa to Europe is my choice...dependable, quality oriented, and extremely well connected to every destination worth going to. I would avoid United like a curse!

May 29 2013 at 1:01 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
bchrist751

There is more comfort taking a Bus than flying...

May 29 2013 at 12:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Norman

Anybody ever fly Transaero Airlines? Its Russian but privately owned.

May 29 2013 at 12:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Norman's comment
setanta54s_back

can you still have a cigarette on them ???

May 29 2013 at 1:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
pmac

Well, you tired old farts who voted for reagan got what you deserve. Crappy service is a direct result of de-regulation and the low prices are what the public seem to prefer over quality service. Just sit there in your cheap seat and squirm because you got what you wanted. If you're wondering where the one percenters are, they're not even up in first class. One percenters are doing private jet charters and leases with the extra profits they earn from selling you cheap seats.

May 29 2013 at 11:58 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to pmac's comment
setanta54s_back

AND of course PP, raygun SINGLEHANDEDLY got deregulation initiated.
he was the KING.just like daaabuuuush.
just A WORD IS ALL IT TAKES !

moronic post.

May 29 2013 at 1:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Sara

People are paying at least 50% less for airline tickets today than they were 25 years ago. At the same time, most carriers have gone bankrupt and workers have taken deep paycuts. In my case, about 30% less pay and work rules and rest protection are minimal. I cringe when I read about disappointment with service or how we aren't smiling. Are you kidding me? Walk a mile in our shoes and you'll change your tune, Molly!

May 29 2013 at 11:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
tmlbtb

More examples of bad management in this country.

May 29 2013 at 11:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
katmogie

they should start charging fees for the large bags, that people try to cram in the overhead bins, as for the high prices that airlines charge for snacks, bring your own.

May 29 2013 at 11:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply