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

Updated 10:52 AM EDT, Mon June 19, 2017
(CNN) —  

We’re annoyed by fees to check our luggage.

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.

Or maybe not.

You’d be wrong.

Turns out, many fliers are actually enjoying their air travel experiences – and even more than last year, according to the J.D Power and Associates 2016 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, released Wednesday.

Are airline passengers really happier?

Satisfaction with North American airlines rose for a fourth straight year, measuring at a record high 726 points on a scale of 1,000.

That’s a nine-point increase over last year’s 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, which is split between traditional and low-cost carriers, measures passenger satisfaction with North American airlines based on seven criteria.

JetBlue Airways dominated the rankings, placing first for the 11th consecutive year, with 790 points.

It also earned more points than any other airline, whether low-cost or legacy.

Southwest Airlines came in second place (789 points), followed by WestJet in third (723) and Frontier Airlines in fourth (662).

The average rating for low-cost carriers increased 9 points to 775.

’Experience matters’

Alaska Airlines topped the rankings of North American legacy carriers for the ninth consecutive year, earning 751 points, followed by Delta Air Lines in second place (725 points) and American Airlines (including American-owned US Airways) in third (693 points).

A day in the life of the world’s busiest airport

The average rating for legacy carriers increased eight points to 703 points out of a possible 1,000. Air Canada came in fourth with 681, followed by United Airlines (675).

“I’m not surprised to see that JetBlue and Alaska Airlines have again topped the low-cost and traditional segments,” said Benét J. Wilson, air travel expert at About.com.

“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

Despite industry improvements, U.S. airline customer complaints rose by 38% from 2014 to 2015, according to the 26th annual national Airline Quality Rating report, released in April.

“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 satisfaction study was based on responses from 10,348 passengers who flew on a major North American airline between March 2015 and March 2016.