Despite recent incidents, US airlines satisfaction up for fifth straight year

(CNN)A passenger is dragged from his seat on a United Airlines flight.

A mother and an American Airlines flight attendant argue over a stroller.
Delta Air Lines apologizes after kicking a family off an aircraft over a seat mix-up.
You'd think many air travelers would be annoyed about flying -- and even worried about getting kicked off their flights -- given the current climate.
    You'd be wrong.
    Many travelers enjoy flying by air, and their satisfaction is on the rise, according to the J.D Power 2017 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, released Wednesday.

    Are airline passengers really happier?

    Satisfaction with North American airlines rose for the fifth year in a row, measuring at a record high 756 points on a scale of 1,000.
    That's a 30-point increase over the 2016 results.
    "A few of the bigger factors contributing to that increased satisfaction are cheaper airfares, better on-time performance, an all-time low bump rate (and) less mishandled bags," said Michael Taylor, travel practice lead at J.D Power.
    "Also, airlines are becoming more adept at entertaining passengers in-flight, providing Wi-Fi, streaming, and on-demand movies available to help the passengers pass the time in the aircraft. A lot of aircraft upgrades are being put into service."

    Really?

    "We surveyed 11,000 people about their airline experiences in the past year," Taylor said. "On average, they had a better experience than the previous year."
    Taylor included one proviso: "Our fielding period did end before the Dr. Dao incident," referring to Dr. David Dao's forced removal from a United Airlines flight in April.
    The study measured passenger satisfaction with air carriers based on seven criteria, splitting the rankings into traditional and low-cost North American airlines. Ranked in order of importance, they are costs and fees; in-flight services; boarding, deplaning and baggage; flight crew; aircraft; check-in; and reservations.
    Southwest Airlines dominated the 2017 rankings, coming in first place in the low-cost carrier category with 807 points.
    It also earned more points than any other airline, whether low-cost or legacy carrier.
    JetBlue Airways came in second place (803 points), followed by WestJet in third (736) and Frontier Airlines in fourth (663).
    The average rating for low-cost carriers increased 9 points to 784.

    'Experience matters'

    Alaska Airlines topped the rankings of North American legacy carriers for the tenth consecutive year, earning 765 points, followed by Delta Air Lines in second place (758 points) and American Airlines in third place (736 points).
    The legacy carriers' average rating increased 37 points to 740 points out of a possible 1,000. United Airlines came in fourth with 716, followed by Air Canada (709).
    "Despite recent incidents, these numbers don't surprise me," said Benét J. Wilson, senior editor of Airport Business magazine, who more often than not can be found flying in the air.
    "While flying isn't what it was in the golden age of travel before deregulation, it has become a safe and reasonably priced way to get from point A to point B. And even those who do complain still fly, because they know it's the quickest way to their destinations."

    Complaints vs. performance

    Even complaints about airlines dropped -- from 1.90 per 100,000 passengers in 2015 to 1.52 per 100,000 passengers in 2016, according to the 27th annual national Airline Quality Rating report, released in April. (They don't take into account that the recent spate of bad news in 2017.)
    "Granted, air travel isn't perfect," Taylor said. "Planes remain pretty packed with over 80% load factors. That means that the middle seat is more likely to be occupied -- that empty middle seat used to be free real estate for passengers -- and overhead bin space issues are trending upward again."
    "On the whole, passengers are more satisfied than previous years."
    The 13th annual satisfaction study was based on responses from 11,015 passengers who flew on a major North American airline between April 2016 and March 2017.