Survey: Airline passengers unhappy with U.S. airlines

The results of a new survey show that many airline passengers are pissed off about the state of air travel in the United States.

So what’s new?

The survey, conducted and released by the well-respected Consumer Reports, shows that for most passengers, air travel has become a constant struggle to avoid ultra-tight seating, hefty luggage fees, and itinerary-wrecking delays. But a small number of carriers deliver consistently good travel experiences, according to its readers.

To identify the best and worst airlines, CR surveyed more than 55,000 members last summer, who reported on nearly 98,000 domestic economy flights and 8,700 first-class and business-class flights. Those readers weighed in on almost a dozen factors, including their airline seat’s comfort and legroom, cleanliness, service by airline staff, food and beverage selection, Wi-Fi connectivity, and pricing transparency.

Out of the 11 airlines surveyed, Southwest (NYSE:LUV) landed at the top of the ratings chart for overall satisfaction by passengers on economy flights. It earned high scores for staff service and ease of check-in, and cabin cleanliness. And it was the only airline to earn top marks for pricing transparency. The no-frills carrier clearly lists its fees, does not have a change fee, and gives passengers two free checked bags.

Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK), jetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU), Virgin America (part of Alaska Air Group), and Hawaiian Airlines (NYSE:HA) are also among the highest rated airlines for economy flights. Like Southwest, these airlines also received favorable ratings for staff service, check-in ease, and cabin cleanliness.

Among the lowest-rated airlines by coach passengers are Frontier (NASDAQ:FRNT), Spirit (NASDAQ:SAVE), United (NYSE:UAL), American (NASDAQ:AAL) and Allegiant Airlines (NYSE:ALGT). Additionally, Spirit and Frontier Airlines received low marks in all the categories CR rated.

The survey also asked first-class and business-class travelers to rate their experiences. Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines were among the highest rated airlines for overall satisfaction by passengers. More on that later in this article.

Nickel-and-dime charges rankle travelers

The CR survey found that pricing remains a crucial issue for coach passengers. Some four in ten travelers who booked their flight said they chose their airline because it had the cheapest flight available. Unfortunately, the initial fare is often vastly different than the all-in price.

More and more airlines are adding basic economy seating, which means flyers are increasingly paying additional fees for what used to be standard service. More than half of economy passengers in the survey were charged to select a better seat, and 40 percent who checked a bag were charged an extra fee.

In many cases, it is difficult to avoid add-on charges, in part because they may not be immediately clear when booking online. Half of those surveyed said they were unsure or could not remember if any extra fees were added to their bill when they purchased their ticket.

Travelers also say that they are often confused during the booking process.

“Often, with some of these budget airlines, travelers think that they have to pay for a seat on top of the cost of the ticket,” Anna Laitin, director of financial policy for Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports, said.

Advocates say the airlines must do a better job of fee transparency. Last December, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) dropped proposals that would have required airlines to disclose checked and carry-on bag fees at the start of a ticket purchase rather than later on. More recently, Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) reintroduced legislation that would compel DOT to reopen its Request for Information (RFI) on the matter, with an eye toward enhancing pricing transparency.

Less comfy in coach

Nearly 30 percent of coach passengers reported that their seat was uncomfortable. In fact, all the airline economy flights rated by Consumer Reports received low scores for the seat comfort and legroom categories.

That is hardly a surprise. For some time, airlines have been cramming more seats into their coach sections, even as the average American is growing larger. Coach seats that are 17 inches wide with pitch of 30 inches are quite common, according to Further, to squeeze even more seats into their planes, the seats have far less foam padding than in the past.

Food fails

On all carriers, both the complimentary and paid food and beverage choices in coach were marked below average. Most airlines also received low scores for their Wi-Fi connectivity and in-flight entertainment options.

The most common check-in or on-ground problem reported by survey respondents was a flight delay. Twelve percent of the flights reported were delayed, with the median wait lasting 76 minutes.

Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines had the fewest flight holdups. Though Consumer Reports didn’t have enough data to report median wait time for Hawaiian Airlines, for those airlines that we did, Alaska and Southwest Airlines had the shortest reported delay times. For av-geeks like me, the DOT publishes an Air Travel Consumer Report each month around the 15th. These reports, available here, contain considerable detail about airline performance for the month covered, as well as for the 12 months prior to the report.

Is First Class REALLY “first class”?

Of the five airlines rated for first-class and business-class travel, Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines were among the highest rated carriers. Hawaiian Airlines was the only airline to receive top marks for legroom. Alaska Airlines received the highest score for pricing transparency during the booking process.

Though all five airlines receive higher overall satisfaction scores from first-class and business-class travelers, Delta landed in the middle of the pack. United and American Airlines are among the lowest rated, with average marks for seat comfort and below average scores for Wi-Fi and in-flight entertainment.

Still, all five carriers received average or above average scores for staff service. And first-class and business-class passengers were generally more satisfied with their flight experience, compared with coach travelers, which is fairly predictable given the extra amenities carriers provide to their higher-paying passengers.

My take

While my first reaction to the survey was, “So what’s new?”, the results did contain at least one surprise: U.S. airlines are wrong about passengers’ price sensitivity.

U.S. airlines would have us believe that the only thing the traveling public cares about is getting a low ticket price, but CR found that simply isn’t so. The survey found that more travelers pick airlines based on convenience rather than cost. About 60 percent of passengers said the main reason for choosing their carrier was it had a flight that best fit their schedule.

Still, a bit of shopping around can’t hurt.

“No single travel site or airline consistently offers the best deals in all cases,” William McGee, airline consultant for Consumers Union, said.

In addition, a bit of flexibility in both timing and location will improve your odds of finding a lower-cost ticket.

Travelers with some flexibility should check to see how ticket prices would change if they fly a day or two earlier or later, or if they leave early in the morning or late at night. When I was planning an award trip to Poland in 2015, the American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL) AAdvantage Awards agent suggested delaying my departure until after Oct. 15, a change that saved me thousands of miles.

Also, compare flights at more than one airport. Some 36 percent of passengers cited availability of flights out of their preferred airport as the key reason for their choice, but travelers who live near more than one airport may be able to trim costs by considering alternates.

For example, New York City-based travelers can chose from John F. Kenney International (JFK), LaGuardia International (LGA) or Newark Liberty International (EWR). San Francisco Bay-area residents can look at San Francisco International (SFO), Oakland International (OAK) or Mineta San Jose International (SJC). A few extra minutes on the road, the subway or BART could result in substantial savings.

Finally, travelers flexible enough to travel on the actual holidays, including Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day may also find that airfares can be 25 percent to 50 percent less than traveling a few days before the holiday in question.

Visit my main page at for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photo by Carl Dombek
Click on photo to view larger image

If you found this article helpful, informative and/or entertaining, please consider making a donation via PayPal to help support this private project.