That's the message from more than 19,000 air passengers surveyed by J.D. Power and Associates, a marketing information company in Westlake Village, Calif.
In the company's 2008 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, released today, it was people, not price, that sent the industry's scores spiraling to their lowest levels in three years, said Executive Director Linda Hirneise.
Fliers gave thumbs down to employees' knowledge, courtesy and helpfulness across the board: reservation and gate agents, check-in staff and flight crews.
Among big network carriers, United Airlines took the biggest dive from last year's survey, tying with Northwest Airlines for last place in customer satisfaction. Alaska Airlines and Continental Airlines tied for the top network spot by improving their scores. And just like last year, JetBlue Airways was No. 1 overall and among low-cost carriers.
United, which has had troubled labor relations, was hit with an especially steep decline this year in customers' ratings of its flight crew. Although the study did not disclose the reasons for this, Hirneise said her company, which also surveys employees, generally finds a strong correlation between staff satisfaction and customer satisfaction.
She added: "An airline can no longer compete on product or price. The key differentiator will be the quality of service."
Are the airlines listening? Maybe so. In April they employed 1% more workers, on average, than in April 2007, according to a report today from the U.S. Department of Transportation. All seven big network carriers, except American Airlines, added staff.
For more information, including rankings, from the J.D. Power survey, visit its website. For the government report on airline employment, visit the website of the DOT's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.