Airlines’ consumer ratings rise in University of Michigan quarterly survey


CHICAGO – Airline passenger satisfaction rose 3% in the first quarter, as measured by the American Customer Satisfaction Index at the University of Michigan.

That was the first time since 2003 that public opinion on airlines has improved from the previous quarter. According to the survey, airline customer satisfaction has been on a downward slide since 1994, with few interruptions.

“It’s good news that airlines have improved,” said Claes Fornell, who founded the index in that year. But, he said, “I don’t think it’s sustainable.” This year, the recession has cut into passenger traffic, which means lines at airports are shorter and planes have a better chance of arriving on time. Economic recovery is likely to bring a return to cramped conditions on planes and at airports, along with lower ACSI scores, Fornell said.

In the recent survey, the airlines maintained long-held relative postions, with Southwest Airlines Co. (LUV) recieving top marks, and United Airlines, a unit of UAL Corp. (UAUA), coming in last. Southwest, the leading low-cost airline, gained ground with consumers this year, up 3%, for an all-time industry high score of 81, while United’s score was unchanged at 56. Southwest scored well for its on-time performance, luggage handling, and for low fares.

While the airline industry ranks low overall in the public’s mind, “81 would be a good score for any business,” Fornell said. On the other hand, “companies that score in the fifties usually don’t survive in other industries.”

Carriers that showed the most improvement in the quarter included Continental Airlines Inc. (CAL), up 10% to 68, and US Airways Group, Inc. (LCC), up 9% at 59. Delta Air Lines Inc.’s (DAL) score rose 7% to 64. American Airlines, a unit of AMR Corp. (AMR), was the only airline that lost ground. Consumers gave the carrier a rating of 60, a 3% drop from the previous quarter.