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Trip Doctor: What Americans Really Think about Flying

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With summer vacation upon us, it seems students aren't the only ones getting their final grades. A slew of reports and studies recently came out—including ones from Harris Interactive, J.D. Power & Associates, Consumer Reports, and the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI)—surveying a total of over 67,000 Americans on their latest opinions North American air travel. Here are some of the highlights:

Satisfaction is…Up!

  • Even though Consumer Reports concludes "There isn't much good news for passengers," recent findings by J.D. Power & Associates suggest that the passengers themselves disagree. The marketing information firm surveyed nearly 12,000 individuals and measured customer satisfaction on a 1000 point scale based on airline performance in 7 categories: cost & fees; in-flight services; boarding/deplaning/baggage; flight crew; aircraft; check-in; and reservation.  The results?  Overall passenger satisfaction is up 14 points to 695, a score not seen since 2006, before the age of a-la-carte baggage fees.

  • The June ACSI report finds that airline satisfaction is up 3% from last year. The Index surveyed over 1,500 individuals in the first three months of 2013, and concluded that current passenger satisfaction index rose to a dismal 69 out of 100. Of all 43 industries monitored by the ACSI, only two (Subscription Television Service and Internet Service Providers) received lower satisfaction scores.

 Baggage Fees Are (Less) Awful:

  • A measly 37% of people who pay baggage fees believe they're reasonable, up from 28% in 2012 and 18% in 2011 (J.D. Power & Associates).

  • But, more passengers (39%) would rather have a stranger sleep on their shoulder than have to pay for carry-on baggage, according to the Harris poll, which asked travelers to select the least horrible option between several dystopian scenarios.

Aisle, Window, or Extra-Legroom Seating is Worth it:

  • Well over half (58%) of respondents in the Harris survey say they're willing to pay extra for additional legroom on flights over 3 hours, while 53% say they'd shell out more money for an aisle or window seat.

In-Flight Entertainment isn't a deal breaker:

  • 55% of Americans would rather have free WiFi than free TV and movies on a flight (Harris Poll).

  • 69% of Americans would rather fly without in-flight TV/Movies than pay for baggage (Harris Poll).

Check-in Gets a Check Plus, but Flying Still Isn't Fun:

  • Americans give the check-in process an indexed score of 82 out of 100 (ACSI).

  • Once on the plane, though, scores plummet: In-flight services receive an indexed score of 68, and seat comfort an even lower score of 62 (ACSI).

Smiles Matter:

  • The biggest booster to customer satisfaction may be a friendly face. J.D. Power & Associates found that passengers who are "consistently" greeted with a smile rate their experience on average 211 points higher than their compatriots who receive no smile at all.

The Top Airlines…Depends Who You Talk To:

Budget Airlines:

  • Respondents in the J.D. Power & Associates survey give low-cost airlines an average score that's over 100 points higher than that of traditional carriers. Survey takers gave JetBlue an average score of 787 out of a possible 1000 points, topping the list for an impressive ninth consecutive year. Southwest, which earned an average score of 770, came in second-place.

  • The two budget airlines earned top spots in June's ACSI report as well. JetBlue, with a satisfaction index score of 83, came in at number one, but Southwest's index score of 81 marks one of the year's highest improvement rates—up 5% from 2012.

Or not-so-budget:

  • According to the Consumer Reports study, Virgin America is the country's best airline, with "some of the highest scores…seen in years." Over 16,000 survey takers (all of whom subscribe to the product review magazine) rated their feelings on the airlines' ease of check-in, cabin-crew service, cabin cleanliness, baggage handling, seating comfort, and in-flight entertainment options. Virgin America earned an impressive Reader Score of 89 out of 100 in terms of overall satisfaction. JetBlue and Southwest tie for second place, with Reader Scores of 85.

The Worst Airline: 

  • Only Consumer Reports shared its readers' opinions on their lowest scoring airline. Spirit ranked worst in all six performance categories, and garnered a low Reader Score of 50 for overall satisfaction.  According to the magazine, Spirit "received one of the lowest overall scores for any company we've ever rated." Ouch.

Cry-Babies are A-OK:

  • 63% of passengers would rather be seated next to a crying baby than a smelly adult. (Harris Poll)

Peter Schlesinger is a Research Assistant at Travel + Leisure.

Photo credit: Jake Stangel

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