Americans Enjoy Booking Flights A Lot More Than Actually Taking Them

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U.S. airlines have what can be called a mixed relationship with their customers. On one hand, more and more people fly every year. On the other, flying does not rate very highly with all those passengers.

In its 2019 travel survey, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) for air carriers rose from 73 in 2018 to 74. Where last year airlines ranked above eight other industries, this year they rank above nine of all 47 industries (including federal and local governments) that were reviewed and ranked. The airline industry score is included in the ACSI Travel Report for 2018−2019.

The top-ranked airline this year is Alaska Airlines Group Inc. (NYSE: ALK), with an index score of 80. JetBlue Airways Corp. (NASDAQ: JBLU) and Southwest Airlines Inc. (NYSE: LUV) finished second with scores of 72. JetBlue was the top rated airline in 2017 and Southwest was top-rated last year. These three have been at the top of the rankings for the past five years, although the order changes.

As a group, the airlines’ ACSI score of 74 puts them on a par with wireless phone carriers and gas stations. Utilities, both investor-owned and municipal, scored lower, as did the U.S. Postal Service, federal and local governments, internet social media and — the worst of all — internet service providers and subscription television providers (both with index scores of 62).

As an industry, the airlines posted an index score of 62 in 2008, making its 10-year move to a peak of 75 in 2017 even more impressive. The best-liked features of the airline experience are the airlines’ high-quality mobile apps (index score 82) and easy flight check-ins.

The least-liked feature of air travel is seat comfort. Legroom is disappearing as seats get narrower and closer together. Both of these are among the biggest air travel complaints every year.

Here are the ACSI scores for the six other U.S. carriers reviewed: Delta, 75 (up a point); American, 73 (down a point); Allegiant, 714 (down three points); United, 70 (up three points); Frontier, 64 (up two points); and Spirit, 63 (up one point).

The ACSI report on travel also includes index scores on hotels and internet travel services. The hotel industry index score also dipped by one point from 76 to 75. Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. (NYSE: HLT) and Marriott International Inc. (NASDAQ: MAR) tied at the top with scores of 80. Motel 6 fared worst with an index score of 64.

Internet travel services posted an industry index score of 79, led by TripAdvisor Inc. (NASDAQ: TRIP) with a score of 82. (And these are the best airlines in the world, according to the site.) Of the five services included, Booking Holdings Inc.’s (NASDAQ: BKNG) Priceline ranked last, with an index score of 76.

Consumers clearly find making their travel plans to be more enjoyable than either flying or staying in a hotel when they reach their destination. Now that Americans are comfortable with the technology behind booking and checking in, the travel industry needs to focus more on how to make the real-life experience better. Stuffing more seats onto a plane is probably not the answer. And one airline is making seats even tinier by reducing how far seats can recline.