• November 8, 2005
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Airlines Are Crashing on Service

Airline satisfaction ratings are the lowest they have been in the past 15 years, according to the 2005 Zagat Airline Survey, which has monitored results since 1990. Reviews of 22 domestic and 55 international carriers, as reported by 5,277 regular travelers and travel professionals, show overall ratings for major U.S. carriers like Delta and United dropped 30 percent or more since 2001, the year of the last Zagat airline report. Continental was the lone major U.S. carrier in the top 10, ranking ninth overall. The overall average score of all carriers declined more than 10 percent in the past four years, standing now at 14.26.The five top spots went to midsize carriers like Midwest Airlines, JetBlue, Frontier, and two that didn't exist in 2001: Song and Independence Air. Ironically, Delta subsidiary Song will cease operations in May 2006. Zagat's dismal rating of the world's airlines reveals an industry that is nose-diving toward ruined finances and reputations. Ongoing labor disputes, high fuel costs, aging fleets, and other issues have all taken their toll. "The major U.S. carriers are in trouble and not just financially," says Tim Zagat, Zagat Survey cofounder and CEO. "Their relations with customers are so poor, they're fortunate that passengers have few other places to turn--only JetBlue seems to be satisfying customers, and even its ratings dipped slightly." International carriers fared poorly as well, though generally better than the domestics. This is usually the case, according to the survey, because international flights are usually on larger aircraft and have more complete food service. Still, only the top three (Singapore Airlines, Emirates Air, and Cathay Pacific Airways) achieved the "very good" rating of 20 or above on the Zagat 30-point scale. U.S. carriers with overseas flights were rated separately for their international and domestic performance, but did poorly here as well. The top-U.S. internationals were Continental (ranked 22), United (37), and American (38). Only Continental improved its rating since the last survey. Despite poor marks, the airline industry is seeing more business. Zagat indicates that 85 percent of respondents are flying as much (54) or more (31) than last year. John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York rated worst for both domestic and international flights. Food service was the air travel industry's worst performance area. Out of a possible 30 points, American and Northwest both scored a mere 6, USAirways a 5, and United a 7. The top score, 17, went to Midwest, with other notables being Hooters, with 14, and JetBlue, with 12. However, only 2 percent of surveyors cited "bad or no food" as the number one complaint, which the Zagat survey suggests is "probably a sign that fliers have given up any expectation of finding decent food in the air." The most pervasive complaint topic was "delays, cancellations, and waiting," which roused the ire of 42 percent of respondents. Domestic carriers have one area where they outperform the internationals: Web content. According to Zagat, 55 percent of its surveyors book their flights online. Alas, the average domestic airline Web site rating is better than its actual flight performance. Also of note in this area, the number one foreign carrier (Virgin Atlantic) was outperformed in Web service by six domestics. One surveyor was quoted as saying, "It's too bad you can't fly the Web sites." Related articles: Online Travel Reservations Are Missing the Boat
Southwest Airlines Cruises in Customer Satisfaction JetBlue Soars Again in Service Rankings
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