By Kelli B. Grant
$25 for a checked bag. $20 to pick your seat. $7 for a pillow. Thanks to a growing litany of fees, the airline industry has sunk to a new low in customer satisfaction.
The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index, released today, shows that airlines’ customer-satisfaction ratings slid from an already-low 66 to 65 this year, where they are tied with newspapers for last place among 47 industries tracked. Consumers who checked a bag were even less happy, rating the airlines at an average 58. (Those who didn’t check a bag gave them a 68.)
“We’ve really never liked our airlines,” says David VanAmburg, the managing director of the ACSI. “The fees are really a big part of that.” Air passengers dislike paying for items that were once free, which makes them feel like they’re getting less value for their fare. More proof: relatively fee-free Southwest Airlines led the airline rankings for the 18th year with a score of 81, a 17-point lead over next-ranked Continental. That carrier saw its score drop 10 points to 64 as a result of its merger with 61-scoring United. Delta came in last with a rating of 56 — a six-point drop from last year.
Other poll results were more positive, with hotel guest satisfaction rising 2.7% to 77. “Hotels have been able to do what airlines can’t, in the sense that they are adding some value for the cost,” VanAmburg says. Rates have risen, but consumers shopping for deals might be able to get free WiFi or breakfast as part of the cost. Full-service restaurants scored 82, up from 81 last year, while fast food restaurants rose 4 points to 79. Express-delivery services, already one of the top-ranked industries, increased their score from 83 to 84, and even the U.S. Postal Service jumped three points to 74.
The take away for consumers? There’s enough competition in most of the assessed fields that if you feel like you’re not getting good value, you can switch where you do business, VanAmburg says. Even airlines, where route domination makes it harder to switch, there’s a tricky way to increase your satisfaction that involves two fields with higher satisfaction ratings: hotels and express-delivery services.
As checked-bag fees rise, travel experts have started suggesting consumers ship their belonging ahead to their hotel, a move that can cut your bill substantially. Shipping a 60-pound box from New York City to Dallas would set you back $56 at UPS. A Delta flier, meanwhile, could pay as much as $115 to check the same bag — $25 for a first checked bag and a $90 overweight fee, or $60 for two checked bags. “It’s an interesting concept,” says Van Amburg. “If you look at the scores overall, you’re likely going to get a much better experience shipping a bag.”