Airlines receive the lowest customer satisfaction ratings among all travel-related industries, according to a new report released Tuesday.
For the second year in a row, airlines earned a score of 69 out of 100 points, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index travel report. That is among the lowest of any industry or agency, hovering above only the IRS, subscription television providers and social media sites.
The survey found that passengers appreciate that airlines are mishandling fewer bags and a check-in process that's been made simpler by technology. But the flight itself is making some passengers unhappy, with seat comfort and in-flight service particularly dissatisfying.
"In the middle is where airlines are having some problems,'' David VanAmburg, managing director of the ACSI, said of the flying experience. "Unfortunately, both for the airlines and the traveler, that's the most important part.''
Seat comfort scored 63 out of 100 points, while in-flight service rated an index score of 67 points.
"While we're on the plane, most of what we're doing is sitting, and we're not generally comfortable doing it,'' VanAmburg says. Meanwhile, "the beverage service, the customer service, the entertainment ... are not rated very high either.''
Fliers were most satisfied with lower-cost carriers. JetBlue, with a score of 79 points, came out on top among airlines for the third year in a row, and Southwest followed close behind with a score of 78. But both carriers saw their scores drop, from 83 and 81 respectively, in 2013.
United was at the bottom with a score of 60 points out of 100. And though American, US Airways, and Delta, saw their scores rise, the series of mergers that have swept the airline industry may be generally dampening customer satisfaction, VanAmburg says.
"We've seen the best (scoring) of the big legacy airlines, Delta, doing better now but just a couple years ago they were way down in the mid-50s,'' VanAmburg said of the carrier which merged with Northwest in 2008.
United and Continental, which joined together in 2010, and Southwest which bought AirTran in 2011, have also had struggles as they integrate, he says. "When you're trying to merge loyalty programs and reservation technologies and so on, there tends to a much greater chance that things will go wrong for a significant portion of their customer base, and that will be reflected in less satisfaction.''
Victoria Day, spokeswoman for the industry trade group Airlines For America, said "U.S. airlines continue to do a great job for their customers despite many circumstances beyond their control, including historically severe weather and air traffic controller furloughs. We are in the safest period of aviation, air travel remains a bargain, and airlines are investing back into the business at a very high level, including new planes, new seats, Wi-Fi and other amenities."
Still, the airline industry's overall score was its best in nearly two decades, likely helped by fliers' ability to tap into technology to find, book and check into flights.
"It's certainly much easier now to self-service an airline experience,'' VanAmburg says.
Hotels, which had a three-year streak of record-high satisfaction scores, took a slight dip in the index from 77 points in 2013, to 75 points this year. VanAmburg says the decline may be due in part to travelers seeing hotel prices go up as the economy gets stronger, but not seeing a similar uptick in the quality of amenities.
"When you feel like you're seeing an increase in price, but nobody is throwing more goodies into the bag . . . that will tend to dampen satisfaction a bit,'' VanAmburg said, noting that during the recession hotels were offering discounts and perks to entice guests through the door.
Marriott, with a score of 81, was the highest ranking hotel company, followed by Hilton and Hyatt, with 78 points each. Wyndham ranked lowest with a score of 72.
Online travel sites saw their overall customer satisfaction score inch up to 77 points this year. But some consumers found those sites hard to navigate, and were inclined to use online travel agencies to shop for deals but then go to the actual hotel or airline website to book a room or ticket.
As for airlines, VanAmburg says the uncomfortable seating that's turning off some passengers may not change any time soon, as carriers ensure their planes fly full by not offering more seats than they can fill.
"They're not going to go back to more spacious seating that's going to knock 30 passengers off the plane,'' he says.
The travel index's findings were based on interviews with 7,445 travel consumers between Oct. 21, 2013, and March 11.