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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Survey Says...

Blame ancillary fees, perceptions of customer service, or lack of free amenities, but airline passengers in North America aren’t happy. According to J.D. Power and Associates, customer satisfaction with air carriers has fallen to its lowest level in four years. J.D. Power conducted a survey of almost 13,000 passengers from April, 2008 to May, 2009.

Even though the overall picture isn't pretty, some airlines fared better than others. Alaska Airlines won the best "traditional network carrier" sash, beating Continental Airlines by two points. (Traditional network carriers are defined as airlines that operate multi-cabin aircraft and multiple airport hubs). At the other end of the heap, United came in second to last, and US Airways was at the bottom.

Perceptions of low-cost carriers, defined by J.D. Power as "airlines that operate single-cabin aircraft with typically low fares," were, on the whole, higher than those of network carriers. For the fourth year in a row, JetBlue came in first among low-cast carriers and was, in 2009, tops among all North American carriers, according to the survey. Southwest and Canada’s WestJet tied for second among low-cost carriers. Even Frontier and AirTran, the other low-cost carriers in the survey, scored higher than the top network carrier.

Survey respondents gave the lowest marks to cutbacks of in-flight services, increases in fees, and flight crew courtesy (or lack thereof). That said, passengers did appreciate expedited service at the airport (probably due to all of those self-serve kiosks), fewer delays (probably due to fewer planes in the sky), and more on-time arrivals (probably due to schedule creep).

For those of you not familiar with the term schedule creep, here’s the deal. In order to avoid the dreaded "delayed" label (defined as a plane arriving 15 minutes after its scheduled time), airlines are randomly increasing flight times, even though flights aren't actually taking more time. In other words, a JFK to LAX flight that was scheduled for six hours ten years ago is now scheduled for six hours and 20 minutes. By saying the flights take longer than they actually do, the likelihood of arriving "on-time" becomes higher.

In hearings before Congress this spring, the Department of Transportation’s inspector general confirmed that schedule creep leads “to a perceived decline in flight delays, (but) results in an increase in average flight time." According to Calvin Scovel III, during the past ten years, airlines have increased flight times on two-thirds of the 2,500 domestic routes his office examined. Some scheduled flight times increased by as much as 18 percent.

And that, my friends, is a large part of the reason airlines are reporting their best on-time performances in years. Of course, there are other contributing factors to better on-time performance, including fewer planes in the sky and less baggage to transfer from one plane to another. However, according to DOT's Scovel, there is no evidence that his agency's initiatives to curb delays have done anything to contribute to their reduction.

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