Satisfaction with low-cost carriers outpaces legacy counterparts

Los Angeles Times Travel editor

Alaska Airlines, we like you. JetBlue, we like you even more. But Frontier and US Airways? Not as much (but with an asterisk for Frontier, which we’ll talk about below).

These are the top and bottom finishers in the JD Power & Associates 2012 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, released today (Wednesday) in which more than 13,500 respondents rated the airlines on cost and fees, in-flight services; boarding/deplaning/baggage; flight crew; aircraft; check-in; and reservations. The traditional, or legacy carriers, and the low-cost carriers are rated within their own categories.

On a 1,000-point scale, low-cost carriers averaged 754 and the legacy carriers 681.

The scores for the legacy carriers — Alaska, Air Canada, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways — rank lower than the low-cost carriers: JetBlue, Southwest, WestJet, Air Tran and Frontier. In fact, Frontier shouldn’t feel too bad about coming in last: At 694, the score that put it in last place is still higher than Alaska’s 678 first-place finish.


Overall satisfaction for 2012 was down slightly from the previous year, and it may be based on fees, especially baggage fees. JetBlue and Southwest, for instance, don’t charge for the first checked bag. (Southwest doesn’t charge for a second bag, either.) Alaska charges $20 for a regular traveler (that is, probably coach non-elite flier) and Air Canada charges $25 for the first checked bag between Canada and the U.S. (You get one checked bag free for flights within Canada.)

Part of the issue (mergers of Delta and Northwest and United and Continental aside) may be consumer expectations. The legacy carriers used to provide services such as in-flight meals, but that wasn’t an expectation with the low-cost carriers, said Stuart Greif, vice president of the global travel and hospitality practice for JD Power. “Forty-one percent [of respondents] cite price as the primary reason they decided on one carrier versus another,” he said. Your personal budget or your company bean counters may compel you to fly the lowest-cost carrier, and if that happens to be a legacy carrier, the decision is almost made for you.

Now, Greif said, airlines face this issue: Fees such as those for checked baggage hurt customer satisfaction, but they have become an important source of revenue for many airlines. Can those airlines really afford to stop charging for bags and other formerly free services?

And some of what plays into satisfaction is not related to cost. A smile or a thank you costs nothing, Greif noted, adding that there’s a high correlation between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction.