Airlines are getting worse -- no, wait; they're getting better

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RUSSIA-US-MEDIA-SECURITY-INTELLIGENCE (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV / Chicago Tribune / June 25, 2013)

Better or worse depends on which recent report you read. One says airlines were worse in 2014 than 2013; the other says they were 2.9 percent better. Which is right? The answer is, "Both," because the reports used different measures.

When consumers think about the "quality" of any service, they consider two basic elements:

-- How good is the service, as designed and promised?

-- How reliably and consistently does the supplier deliver on the promise?

The overall airline experience seems to have improved a bit, as measured by the American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). This survey-based scoring system, originally developed at the University of Michigan, basically measures how consumers regard both the service and its delivery:

Last year, the overall airline industry scored 71 on a scale of 100, compared with 69 in 2013. The detailed report posts data for nine individual airlines:

-- JetBlue was top scorer, at 81, followed by Southwest at 78 and Alaska at 75.

-- Delta, at 71, matched the industry average, and the aggregate of smaller lines scored 73.

-- Below-average scorers were American at 66, Allegiant at 60, Frontier at 58, and -- no surprise -- Spirit at 54. In most industries, a customer satisfaction score under 60 would indicate a company circling the drain, but, with airlines, the outfits with scores of 54 and 60 are among the most profitable.

In general, consumers gave relatively high marks to timeliness of arrival, handling of baggage, ease of check-in, website satisfaction, flight crew helpfulness, the boarding experience and ease of making a reservation. Loyalty programs, range of schedules, call center satisfaction, and in-flight service earned so-so grades, with seat comfort -- again, no surprise -- at the bottom.

Despite their modest improvement as a group, airlines ranked fourth from the bottom of the 43 individual industries ACSI covers. That put airlines below banks, gasoline stations, wireless telephone and the Post Office. The only industries with scores lower than airlines were health insurance, subscription TV and Internet service providers.

The Airline Quality Rating (AQR), developed by professors at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Wichita State University, features scores based on objective factual data rather than surveys. Actually, the scores are really nothing more than a "front end" for annual airline data published in the Department of Transportation's Air Travel Consumer Reports. Initially AQR founders tried to include factors related to how good each airline's product was, but they quickly dropped the qualitative elements and instead focused strictly on performance -- a move now noted in the subhead that refers to "performance" rather than "quality."

DOT compiles data on four factors, as related to numbers of passengers: flights arriving on time, travelers "bumped," bags mishandled and consumer complaints. AQR gives weights to each factor and computes composite scores. Because three of the four factors indicate poor performance, composite scores are negative. Compared with 2013, AQR found:

-- The overall score for 2014, -1.24, was a tad worse than the 2013 score of -1.07.

-- Top-scoring airlines, with scores above -1.0, were, from the top down, Virgin America, Hawaiian, Delta, JetBlue and Alaska.

-- Lowest scorers, below -2.0, were Envoy/American Eagle and ExpressJet; regional lines typically earn low scores.

But these scores can be a bit misleading. If you remember, January 2014 was a really bad weather month, and the overall industry score dropped dramatically that month. ExpressJet, Envoy/American Eagle, JetBlue, Southwest, and United took especially hard hits. Take out the January data, and these lines look a lot better.

Any time you see reports like these, the logical question to ask is, "Should these scores influence my choice of airline?" My answers are "maybe" to both:

-- The main take-away from the AQR is that you're more likely to run into a problem on a regional line than on a mainline flight.

-- The main take-away from the ACSI is that you're a little more likely to be satisfied on JetBlue, Southwest, and Alaska than on other lines -- a conclusion generally in agreement with similar surveys.

But for most travelers, these factors come in behind fare and schedule -- another frequent conclusion.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)

(c) 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.
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