Cramped seats, pricey fees, hours spent waiting on the tarmac -- there's plenty to gripe about air travel these days. But it could be that you're just flying with the wrong carrier.
Consumers' ire for airlines has hit record highs in recent years. Airlines are tied with newspapers as the least-liked industry among the 47 tracked by the American Customer Satisfaction Index. The latest rating of 65 on a scale of one to 100 is 1.5 percentage points lower than last year and about 10 lower than when the ratings were first taken in 1994. Complaints have surged, too, from 0.97 for every 100,000 passengers in 2009 to 1.22 last year, according to the annual Airline Quality Report. And things are likely to get even worse as travel picks back up, experts say, because schedule cutbacks in leaner times have left little wiggle room for error. "Every time the system ramps up to serve increased customer demand, service quality deteriorates," says Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University, which with Purdue University produces the AQR. "Then the complaints come pouring in."
What's got travelers so upset? More of the usual: Flight problems like delays and cancellations represent a third of the 9,119 complaints the Department of Transportation logged last year; bag problems, reservation, ticketing and boarding snafus and customer service issues account for a big chunk of the rest. "Every week, the airlines seem to come up with something else to anger passengers, whether it's somebody being questioned about their attire, inappropriate TSA searches or flight attendants that are surly," Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.com. "There's really not much redeemable about the flying experience unless you're a first-class flyer, and even that isn't what it used to be."
Of course, many of us still have to fly -- and chartering a private jet or even paying up for first-class isn't a solution. For those travelers, SmartMoney pieced together complementary data from the AQR and other recent studies to figure out which airlines are the best and worst at meeting five of fliers' needs: getting a cheap flight, arriving on time, checking a bag, flying in comfort and booking a reward seat. To be sure, travelers' ability to fly on the best and avoid the worst is limited largely by where you live and where you're traveling to, and even then there's no guarantee of a smooth trip. But knowing what to look for could at least help you avoid the shock of a nasty fee (factor it into your budget) or unexpectedly cramped seat (pay up for that extra legroom).
Here's how U.S. carriers stacked up:
1) Getting a cheap flight
During the first quarter of 2011, domestic airfares averaged $356, according to the Department of Transportation. That's up 8.4% from the same period in 2010. But it's not the fares so much as the fees that are eating into consumers' bottom line these days. Worldwide, carriers reported $21.6 billion in fee revenue during 2010, a 38% increase from 2009, according to the Amadeus Review of Ancillary Revenue Results from IdeaWorks. From a practical perspective, fees can add up to 20% of your ticket price, so it's almost as important to consider them as it is to look at fares, says Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com ."Airlines live by the motto of, never be $1 more or less [on fare sales] than your competitor," he says. The trend also means that fliers can often get great deals if they are OK with no frills.
With airlines charging for more things and increasing their fees, ancillary revenue now accounts for up to 30% of an airline's profit in a given year, says Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks. But Frontier gets just 3.7% of its revenue from fees, or an average $4.05 per passenger. Ticket change fees are at most $50, while the big carriers charge as much as three times that. Charges for pets ($75) and unaccompanied minors ($50) are also significantly cheaper than other carriers.
Worst: United Continental
Passengers pay an average $34.32 in fees, according to the survey, putting the carrier third worldwide behind international airlines AirAsia X and Qantas. Fees account for 14.7% of United Continental's annual revenue. The carrier generally keeps fees on level with those of American, Delta and U.S. Airways, but collects more revenue per passenger. The next-highest, Delta, pulls in $22.75 per passenger. A possible reason: United is unique in offering annual subscriptions such as $249 to check two bags on each flight or $425 for economy plus seating with up to 5" extra legroom, Seaney says. United Continental did not respond to requests for comment.
2) Arriving on time
Barring a major snowstorm or other cataclysmic event, travelers face pretty good odds of getting where they need to go on time, or close to it. "There are a lot fewer airplanes flying around than a few years ago," Headley says. "That gives them a bigger window to get it right with an on-time departure." For all of 2010, 80% of flights arrived on time, up from 79.4% in 2009, and half of the 16 airlines studied had rates that were even better than that. And although airlines have been flying fuller planes in recent years, many have also reworked booking procedures to ensure that they aren't overselling tickets. "It's a matter of philosophy," Headley says. "Some airlines have said they will not tolerate denied boardings." But keep in mind that for all the improvements, "flight problems" are the most common gripe, representing about a third of airline complaints.
Best: Hawaiian Airlines
A whopping 92.5% of the carrier's flights arrive on time, up from 92.1% in 2009, according to the Airline Quality Rating. Hawaiian also bumps very few passengers -- just 0.04 per 10,000, slightly off from last year's 0.03. Consumers are even more likely to make it on the plane with JetBlue, which has led the bump ratings with 0.01 this year and 0 last year. But getting on the plane doesn't help as much considering that JetBlue had the second-worst on-time rating this year, at 75.7%. Last year, its 77.5% rating was better than that of five other carriers. JetBlue did not respond to requests for comment.
Last year, 73.1% of Delta regional carrier Comair's flights arrived on time, the lowest of all airlines surveyed. It was last in 2009, too, with 69% of flights arriving on time. The carrier's denied boarding rates are decent at 0.64 per 10,000 passengers but even better than last year's 2.63, Headley says. A Delta spokesman says the company has been working with its Delta Connection partners, including Comair, to improve their on-time performance.
American Eagle's denied boarding rating is the worst this year, bumping 4.02 of every 10,000 passengers, up from last year's 3.76. The carrier has the third-worst on-time rating at 77.1%. American Eagle did not respond to requests for comment.
3) Checking a bag
Travelers who paid to check a bag were much less happy with their carriers than those who didn't, rating their experience a 58 instead of the industry average 68, reports the American Customer Satisfaction Index. There's a slim silver lining to those rising fees to check a bag: said baggage is more likely to make it from Point A to Point B without being lost or damaged. Of the 16 airlines studied in the Airline Quality Report, 13 improved their mishandled bag rates this year. On average, carriers mishandled 3.49 bags per 1,000 passengers in 2010, down from 3.88 in 2009. "Once they started charging for it, they felt they had to start doing it right," Headley says. Of course, it doesn't hurt that fewer people are checking bags in favor of taking a free carry-on, he says. Travelers should also look for loopholes that allow a free bag. Fees are often waived for elite frequent fliers, Sorensen says, and both Delta and United Continental offer a free checked bag as a perk for cardholders.
"Southwest is your first stop if you're checking a bag or two," Sorensen says. It's the only U.S. carrier that still offers travelers the opportunity to check two bags for free, a savings of up to $60. But its 3.43 mishandled bag rating, unchanged from last year, falls in the middle of the pack and is just slightly better than the industry average. A Southwest spokesman says the free-bag policy has led to more customers and, in turn, more bags -- and that's continuing to improve its handling rate. Among airlines that charged for bags, AirTran had the lowest mishandled bag rate at 1.63. (Last year, it topped the ratings with a 1.67.) Bag fees at AirTran are fairly cheap, too, at $20 for a first checked bag and $25 for a second.
Worst: American Eagle
American Airlines' regional carrier had the worst rate, mishandling 7.15 of every 1,000 bags, down from last year's 7.78. Its fees are on par with the other major carriers at $25 for a first checked bag and $35 for a second, but American doesn't offer the $2 to $3 discount per bag that its competitors do for paying in advance of arriving at the airport. American did not respond to requests for comment. Regional airlines tend to fall to the bottom of the mishandled bag rating because smaller aircraft require a careful balance of weight. "I've know airlines to leave people on the tarmac but take their suitcase, or vice versa," he says.
4) Flying in comfort
"Seven or eight years ago, a coach seat was a coach seat," says Matt Daimler, founder of SeatGuru.com http://www.seatguru.com. Not anymore. Airlines have varied configurations for seat width and leg room (often expressed "seat pitch," which measures from any point on one seat to the same point on the seat in front of it). The difference, says 6'1" Daimler, is enough to make it worth comparing seat size along with fares and fees -- especially on longer flights. Travelers should also take a look at the amenities included with their seat, like snacks and in-flight entertainment. And don't think that you're necessarily getting a comfier flight by paying the extra $50 or so to trade up to a premium economy seat. "See what they're offering for that extra money," he says. "Is it extra leg room? Not always. That's a common complaint we get."
JetBlue has the most generous economy seating space on domestic flights, with a seat pitch of at least 32" (and often, 34") on all its aircraft, according to SeatGuru.com data. Each passenger has a personal TV in the seatback in front of them and many flights have the option of WiFi for an additional charge -- amenities that landed it at the top of Zagat's "Best In-Flight Entertainment" list. The survey also gave JetBlue a "very good" rating on its comfort and a "good" on its food, which includes unlimited free snacks and nonalcoholic drinks.
Zagat ratings point to Spirit as the least-comfortable domestic carrier, with a "poor" rating of 7.65. It's no surprise: the carrier's Airbus A320 seats are the smallest, with a seat pitch of just 28". (That's 4" to 6" less leg room that JetBlue seats on the same aircraft, points out Daimler.) Spirit's seats on other planes are a more manageable 30" to 31", but then, the carrier also charges $8 to $20 to select a seat. Passengers don't have seat-back monitors or shared cabin TVs, there's no WiFi, and food and nonalcoholic beverages cost $2 to $5. The latter isn't great either, if the "poor" Zagat rating is any indication. Spirit did not return requests for comment.
5) Redeeming rewards
Reward travel has proven increasingly elusive for travelers in recent years as airlines scaled back schedules and shifted to smaller planes, leaving fewer award seats. If a reward seat is available 60% or better of the time, travelers are doing pretty well, Sorensen says. In the 2011 ezRez Reward Seat Availability Survey from IdeaWorks, six of the nine U.S. carriers studied met that benchmark. Last year, five did. Tight reward availability often leaves a flier with two options: try another date, or pay more than the standard 25,000 miles to loosen availability and restrictions. But when you consistently can't book awards, it's time to cash out, he says. Consider shifting your loyalty to a hotel program that will let you transfer in miles so that you can at least get a free room on your next trip, if not a free flight.
With 99.3% of reward-booking requests available, Southwest has topped the list of American airlines in both years of the survey. It's significantly ahead of the other U.S. carriers -- runner-up JetBlue, in comparison, was able to fill 79.3% of requests. Sorensen attributes part of the top ranking to Southwest's revised reward program. Earlier this year, the carrier began awarding miles based on trip length and price, instead of points by flight segments. Fliers may be able to earn points faster and redeem them more cheaply, he says.
Worst: U.S. Airways
Just 25.7% of reward-seat requests could be fulfilled on U.S. Airways, according to the study -- and that's with a 15-point improvement over last year's figures. Second-worst carrier Delta fulfilled 27.1% of requests, a 14.2-point increase from last year. The airlines have tried to make reward-seat availability a priority to appease fliers, Sorensen says, but it's clearly not enough to offset demand. A U.S. Airways spokeswoman says the study is flawed and doesn't accurately reflect what the typical consumer experiences when trying to redeem for a flight. A Delta spokesman says the carrier has doubled its reward availability compared with last year.