The best and worst airlines according to customer satisfaction

Fortunes in the airline industry can change in an instant.

Southwest, which led all airlines in the latest ACSI Travel Report with a score of 80, recently had a plane engine explode and kill a passenger.

Allegiant Airlines, which jumped 4 percent in 2018 to a score of 74, was the subject of a damaging investigation that alleges the airline fails to follow safety standards, among other issues.

Not to mention the rising costs of fuel and new labor agreements. Or the spate of recent mergers that gives no more than four operators control of 80 percent of the market.

If you follow the news, you’ve likely seen countless stories of customer service mess ups on the part of airlines. And yes, the ACSI score for airlines dropped 2.7 percent from last year. All but four of the largest airlines saw weaker passenger satisfaction this year. And with the exception of the check-in process, which remained unchanged from last year, every aspect of flying has deteriorated in 2018.

But there is also good news for airlines in the scores. Let’s take a closer look.

Airlines with the highest customer satisfaction

Southwest, whose ACSI score remained unchanged from last year, took the lead from JetBlue, which fell 4 percent. JetBlue now sits tied for second with Alaska Airlines, which inched up 1 percent.

Southwest’s low fares and high service levels, combined with its growing network, have kept its customer satisfaction levels steady – this is its third year in a row with the same score. Alaska Airlines was boosted by considerably lower ticket prices and its merger with Virgin America, which has a legacy of good customer service.

Tied for third place are Allegiant (up 4 percent), American (down 3 percent), and Delta (down 3 percent). United fell 4 percent, and bringing up the rear are Frontier (down 2 percent) and Spirit (up 2 percent).

Allegiant’s gains may be short lived following news reports of mechanical issues and safety concerns that sent its stock tumbling. Beleaguered by customer service issues, United saw the sharpest decline in the airline industry in ratings of its employees’ courtesy and helpfulness.

Business travelers vs. leisure travelers

Dividing travelers based on the reason for their travel – business or leisure – uncovers interesting insights into customer satisfaction.

One of the biggest differences between the two is that business travelers are more apt to complain. More than a third of the business travelers surveyed filed a complaint with an airline, over three times the 11 percent of leisure passengers who did the same. But business travelers are also much more satisfied, with ACSI scores more than 8 percent higher than those from leisure passengers.

That makes sense: Business travelers travel more often and are more emboldened to address any issues they experience. Airlines, knowing business travelers are among their best customers, make an effort to right any wrongs. Business travelers are also just more experienced, smart travelers. While infrequent leisure travelers might be unhappy with an unexpected part of the boarding process, for example, business travelers know how to play the game.

ACSI-travel-business-vs-leisure

There are also stark differences around airline baggage fees. Among leisure travelers who didn’t pay fees to check luggage (56 percent), the ACSI score was more than 4 percent higher than among leisure travelers who did pay.

For business travelers, it was the opposite. The 69 percent of business travelers who paid to check baggage also had the highest ACSI score among business and leisure travelers, and nearly 7 percent higher than the business travelers who didn’t pay for checked luggage. Not having to pay out of your own pocket certainly helps.

What needs improvement: Nearly everything

The ACSI score for the check-in process held steady, but every other aspect of flying declined.

Ease of making a reservation, the courtesy and helpfulness of flight crews, timeliness of arrival, and website satisfaction all dropped about 1.2 percent. Seat comfort, already in last place, fell an additional 3 percent.

What’s the good news in all this? That even small improvements could pay big dividends for airlines. Just as fortunes can change in an instant for the worst, they can also shift for the better. By homing in on even a few areas to upgrade, airlines can improve their perception among customers.