Nobody likes flying anymore, and you don’t need a psychology degree to know why. From the TSA to the atrocious leg room to the $25 checked bags, the entire experience feels like a cramped con.
But according to a new report by J.D. Power, consumer satisfaction with U.S. airlines is actually the highest it’s been in 10 years, thanks to a combination of more on-time arrivals, fewer bumps from overbooked flights, fewer lost bags, and better in-flight services (like TV, power plugs, and Wi-Fi). JetBlue and Southwest were top performers in budget airlines, while Alaska Airlines was the top traditional carrier (earlier this year, Alaska acquired Virgin Airlines, which was also lauded for its superb customer relationship).
The study polled over 10,000 business and leisure travelers between March 2015 and March 2016 and asked them to rank flights based upon seven categories: cost and fees, in-flight services, boarding/deplaning/baggage, flight crew, aircraft, check-in, and reservation.
Many of the improvements are the direct results of industry–wide investments in retrofitting planes with better amenities (along with, yes, more seats). Carriers have paid as much as $10,000 for each pitiful touchscreen you see, for instance, only to ditch them as smartphones, tablets, and laptops have become ubiquitous alternatives. But the study found that customer satisfaction doesn’t always require massive plane retrofitting. In fact, it was the human touch that could make the biggest differences.
“We know having all the operational metrics (on time arrival, baggage not lost, etc.) along with great interactions with the crew contributes a lot to delight,” says Rick Garlick, global travel and hospitality practice lead at J.D. Power. “There is usually about a 100-point gap when passengers were greeted with a smile all the time.” (The scoring is done on a 1,000-point scale.)
Other gains might be born more from habit than innovation. People are less upset about paying to check bags, but not because those fees have gone down or disappeared; it’s more likely that we’ve grown habituated to the nickel and diming. Paying $35 extra to sit in the emergency row is the new normal.
And so maybe it’s really no surprise that, while we’re statistically more satisfied with the airlines, the margins of improvement are small, so we’re still far short of being thrilled about the experience. “Satisfaction scores are clearly not good even though they are on the rise,” says Garlick. “Yes, it will be a while before we call the airline experience a happy one for most passengers.”