A major survey of regular travelers and travel professionals about their air travel experiences during the past year revealed very little good news for the beleaguered airline industry.
Zagat’s 2005 report on 22 domestic and 55 international carriers — rating them on issues such as service, comfort, food, and website (the only positive result – “It’s too bad you can’t fly the websites” quipped one responder) — was the worst for the sector since Zagat began surveying it back in 1990, confirming the overall impression of an industry in steep decline and a discontented clientele. Overall, those surveyed reported that the major U.S. airlines, facing high fuel costs, aging fleets and difficult labor relations, are “nickel and diming” passengers to make ends meet.
“The major U.S. carriers are in trouble and not just financially,” said Tim Zagat, co-founder and CEO of Zagat Survey. “Their relations with customers are so poor, they’re fortunate that passengers have few other places to turn.”
Hardest hit were some of America’s biggest airlines: American, Delta (filed for bancruptcy in September), United, and USAirways (exited bankruptcy in September) all saw their overall ratings drop by at least 30% since the last survey was conducted in 2001. In fact, the only major carrier to make its way into the top ten was Continental, which now ranks ninth among domestic carriers. By comparison, mid-sized carriers such as Midwest Airlines, JetBlue and Frontier topped the list. And rounding out the top five were Song (scheduled to fold next May) and Independence Air – airlines that did not even exist when the study was last conducted.
Domestic Carrier Top 10 (rankings out of 30):
1. Midwest Airlines 21.40
2. JetBlue Airways 19.29
3. Song 17.38
4. Frontier Airlines 15.95
5. Independence Air 15.53
6. Hawaiian Airlines 14.36
7. Alaska Airlines 14.21
8. Aloha Airlines 13.65
9. Continental Airlines 13.61
10. Southwest 12.17
At the bottom were US Airways (9.17), Northwest Airlines (9.78 – filed for bancruptcy in September) and Spirit Airlines (10.09). Anything below ten points rates as “poor,” and US Airways’ score was the worst for a domestic carrier in Zagat survey history.
The international carriers fared better than domestic airlines since longer flights usually mean larger airplanes and the necessity of food service, the internationals also lost ground. Only the three highest rated international airlines — Singapore Airlines, Emirates Air, and Cathay Pacific Airways (authoritarian countries have better airlines?) — earned ratings of 20 (i.e. Very Good) or above on Zagat’s 30-point scale.
Among the U.S.-based airlines that fly overseas, the top three — Continental, United and American — ranked twenty-second, thirty-seventh and thirty-eighth respectively.
The one area where domestic carriers outshine their international counterparts is with their websites, where 55% of surveyors say they book their flights. Being in the Continental hub of Cleveland and having friends and relatives coming and going fairly often, I use their site frequently to check on flight status and I give its ease of use and reliability the thumbs-up. We’re flying cross-country on Continental in December – I’ll let you know how it goes.
Embarrassingly, the average score of all domestic airlines’ websites exceed the average rating of their performance in the air. Six domestic carriers out-site the number one foreign carrier, Virgin Atlantic. Another positive, the major domestic carriers offer popular frequent flyer programs, with American, United, Continental, Delta and Southwest leading the way.
In the scoring, food was the lowest category. American and Northwest scored feeble sixes, USAirways a paltry five and United a anemic seven. By comparison, Hooters (“I pick my airline based upon breast exposure”) earned a respectable fourteen, JetBlue a twelve and Midwest, the overall top domestic, gained top marks with a seventeen.
In complaints about actual travel, 42% of surveyors cited “delays, cancellations and waiting,” 21% “cramped seating and crowding” and 13% “poor service” as the number one irritant.
Here are a few choice quotes from the survey:
“The uncomfortable served the inedible by the indifferent.”
“If they could sell space in the overheads, travelers would be stacked up like cold cuts.”
“Need air marshals to protect passengers from crew.”
“Cabin staff treats you like a stranger crashing a dinner party – only they don’t serve food.”
“Only an hour behind schedule and didn’t crash – lived up to my expectations.”
“If you’re a transplanted NYer nostalgic for abuse, this is your airline.”
“‘I’m sorry, sir, but we’ve discontinued legroom.'”