Satisfaction with airlines declines

From Reuters

Customer satisfaction with airlines in the United States has fallen to its lowest level since 2001, according to a survey.

The University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index found that the airline industry scored a mere 62 on a 100-point scale for the first quarter of 2008.

Thousands of flight cancellations for safety checks have battered some airlines' reputations with customers this year.

And faced with the soaring cost of jet fuel, airlines are raising ticket prices, overbooking flights and charging extra fees, the survey said.

US Airways Group Inc. and UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, which have recently been in merger talks, received the lowest scores in the poll: 54 and 56, respectively.

Continental Airlines fell 10% to 62 in the poll, a score that matches its all-time low, and Northwest Airlines, which has agreed to be acquired by Delta Air Lines Inc., fell 7% to 57, its lowest score since 2001.

"It's more of the same -- and it's getting worse," said Claes Fornell, founder of the survey.

"There is very little choice, which explains how you can get away with scores in the 50s. Those are not sustainable on any type of competitive level -- they are lower than the Internal Revenue Service," Fornell added.

Southwest Airlines leads the industry in customer satisfaction for a 15th straight year, improving 4% to 79 points, the survey said.

Delta Air Lines, up 2% to 60, and AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, up 3% to 62, were the only other major airlines to post gains in customer satisfaction.

But the pollsters stressed the survey covered the first quarter of the year only and did not take into account many flight cancellations in April.

Asked whether airline mergers could help improve customer satisfaction, Fornell said: "It could happen, but only if there are enough costs savings and economies of scale so there are some resources [left] over to take care of passengers. But so far we haven't seen it in mergers and acquisitions."

David Castelveter, a spokesman for the chief trade group of major U.S. airlines, the Air Transport Assn., said the survey was a disappointment but not a surprise.

"We are working very hard to find ways to improve the service we provide to our customers, especially given the fact we are going to pay about $18 billion more for fuel in 2008 than we did in 2007," Castelveter said.

The Air Transport Assn. said last week that about 2.7 million fewer passengers will travel with major U.S. airlines this summer.

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