Chart of the Day: Satisfaction High for Discount Airlines

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Whether it's all the new fees, delays, cancellations, or just poor customer service, Americans aren't too thrilled with most airlines these days. A new survey shows this pretty clearly. While customers are generally pleased with discount airlines, they aren't as crazy about their experiences with the more established airlines, according to the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index.

Here's a historical chart, based on the ACSI's survey results:

airline satisfaction 2011.png

You can see that Southwest is ahead of all others -- by a fairly wide margin. It had an 81% satisfaction rating. The rating of its closest named competitor, Continental, was just 69%.

But that "All Others" category is curious. Usually, such miscellaneous categories don't trend well above or below most of the group -- unless they're highly correlated in some way. In this case, they probably are. In this group you essentially have the smaller airlines.*

So this group mostly consists of airlines like JetBlue, AirTran, and Spirit, along with dozens of tiny, regional airlines. The larger names in this group are generally considered discount airlines. Apparently, money can't buy you satisfaction, as the cheapest tickets are providing more satisfaction than those from the more established carriers, which tend to be more expensive.

One thing is clear: if customer satisfaction matters to travelers, then the big airlines might begin to have a tougher time competing unless they make some changes. Not only do they charge more for their tickets, but fliers feel that they're getting better service by paying less.

It's a lucky thing for the establishment that the airline industry doesn't make competing easy. As long as customers prefer the lower-cost carriers, the establishment will have to get by on its control of so many gates and routes. Customers will only consciously ride a more expensive airline that provides an inferior experience if they have no other choice. If this were an industry like electronics, with fewer constraints on brand choice, then those established firms could be in trouble.


*Note: Originally, I ended this sentence with, "except for Southwest." But as a reader correctly pointed out, Southwest isn't all that small anymore. It is, however, considered a discount airline, so goes along with the trend described.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.
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