United Ranks Last Among Big Airlines in Increasingly Important Metric

CHICAGO (Chicago Tribune/TNS) -

The airline industry is evolving from providing just transportation to being more of a hospitality and services business, and by that measure, Chicago-based United Airlines is failing, according to the J.D. Power 2015 North America Airline Satisfaction Study released Wednesday.

United, the largest carrier in Chicago, ranked last among six North American airlines in customer satisfaction, according to the study, though the company can point to a number of recent improvements it has been making to improve the passenger experience.

Alaska Airlines, Delta and American all rated above the industry average.

Among low-cost carriers, JetBlue and Southwest ranked best.

The study measured passenger satisfaction based on seven factors: cost and fees, in-flight services, boarding/deplaning/baggage, flight crew, aircraft, check-in and reservation.

“Many airlines realize that they are not in a commodity business and that hospitality and service go a long way in differentiating them from the other airlines,” said Rick Garlick, global travel and hospitality practice lead at J.D. Power. And better service breeds loyalty, he said.

Hospitality can mean such amenities as food and beverages, in-flight entertainment or wi-fi. It can also mean pleasant interactions, such as a friendly crew or keeping passengers informed with announcements at the gate or on the plane.

Airlines with a solid reputation tend to have passengers who are more forgiving of problems. “When the airline provides good service, passengers are generally less critical when there is a departure delay or a late arrival,” Garlick said.

Overall passenger satisfaction with major North American airlines increased to 717 on the index, up from 712 last year. Drivers of the increase were satisfaction with flight crew, in-flight services, and costs and fees.

A different customer-satisfaction survey released last month showed customers were more satisfied with airlines than they’ve been in 20 years, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a University of Michigan study of 70,000 consumers’ expectations and preferences. However, another report found the industry performed the worst since 2009. That’s according to the Airline Quality Ratings report, a joint project of researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Wichita State University that is based on publicly available data from the U.S. Department of Transportation — not a survey of customer satisfaction.

While United ranked last among major carriers — only Frontier Airlines ranked worse overall — it can point to a number of improvements it has announced recently that could affect customer satisfaction in the future. Besides taking delivery of new planes and adding in-flight wi-fi, as many carriers are doing, United has announced a number of food-related upgrades, including offering free wine and beer for economy passengers on international flights.

At its United Club airport lounges in Chicago and Houston, the airline launched a new food menu, including a Greek yogurt bar and a hot oatmeal station. It also introduced new premium-cabin meals and snacks on flights within North America, and replaced snack boxes with freshly prepared entrees in premium cabins on United Express regional jet service of at least 800 miles.

It is also renovating its United Club lounges and gate areas at a number of airports. This week, it unveiled a new design for its website, available at a test site, beta.united.com.

“We recognize our customers are looking for continued improvements,” United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said. “While we have made strides in the last year with reliability and service, we are working hard to better deliver the experience they value.”

The J.D. Power study is based on responses from 11,354 passengers who flew on a major North American airline from March 2014 to March 2015.

In a separate report Wednesday, J.D. Power also measured satisfaction with airline reward programs, based on ease of redeeming points or miles, reward-program terms, account maintenance and management, ease of earning points or miles, variety of benefits available and customer service.

Overall satisfaction with airline loyalty and rewards programs improved to 705, up from 692 in 2014.

Ranking best were reward programs by Alaska Airlines, JetBlue and Southwest. All mega-carriers ranked below the industry average, with American and United ranked near each other, and Delta far behind.