Lucas Jackson / Reuters
JetBlue ranked highest among airlines in this year's American Consumer Satisfaction Index report.
Are you satisfied with the service you get when you travel?
If so, you’re more likely to be flying JetBlue than United, staying at a Hilton rather than a Wyndham hotel and eating at a Papa John’s or Red Lobster over Chili’s or McDonald’s.
Those are among the findings of the latest American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) report, an annual consumer survey that ranks companies on a scale of 1 to 100.
Released on Tuesday, this year’s survey shows airlines as a group posting their highest score in a decade (67 vs. 65 last year), hotels holding steady (77) and limited-service restaurants catching up with full-service ones for the first time (80).
For the airlines, however, it may be a bit early to break out the champagne. “They improved but their [overall] scores are still pretty dismal,” said David VanAmburg, managing director of the ACSI. “We measure about four dozen industries and they’re still in the bottom three or four.”
As with a J.D. Power report released last week, carriers considered “low-cost” outscored their legacy counterparts.
In the ACSI report, JetBlue took the top spot with a score of 81, the first time the New York-based carrier was separated out of the “All Others” category. Southwest, which has led the category every year since the survey was founded in 1994, slipped to second with a score of 77, down from 81 the year before.
JetBlue scored well, says VanAmburg, by providing an experience that matches its customers’ expectations: “They’re not necessarily providing a quality of experience that’s much higher,” he told msnbc.com. “Rather, they do a good job of [meeting] customers’ expectations while others are falling far short.”
Southwest, meanwhile, slipped, as customers felt the repercussions of the carrier’s merger with AirTran last year. “Airline mergers involve stitching together these massive systems and it seems inevitable that there are hiccups and glitches,” VanAmburg said. “People notice.”
On the other hand, he added, such scores eventually bounce back as merged airlines resolve their problems. During the merger of Delta and Northwest, for example, the former’s score went from 62 in 2010 to 56 in 2011 before rebounding to 65 this year.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, fees, and baggage fees in particular, played a major role in customers’ reported satisfaction: the score for passengers who paid to check bags was 62 compared to 73 for those who didn’t.
“That’s a very large gap,” said VanAmburg. “Obviously, it’s about price but, perceptually, it’s about more than that. It’s the perception of, ‘Wait a minute, you’re just charging me for something but you’re not giving me anything new or better for it.’”
Ironically, though, those same fees also appear to play a role in the industry’s 3.1-percent uptick in overall satisfaction. According to the survey, the number of passengers who reported checking luggage dropped by nearly 20 percent from the year before.
“Fliers are figuring out ways to travel without checking bags so fewer are paying the fees,” said VanAmburg. “That’s giving the airlines a little boost in satisfaction.”
Uptick aside, the overall results suggest that fliers don’t expect their flying experiences to be particularly pleasant to begin with. And with little to differentiate those experiences, they’re opting for lower costs at the expense of higher quality.
That’s just the opposite of what’s going on in the hotel industry, where consumers are willing to pay more to get more.
“You’re at your destination and you want your experience to be great,” said VanAmburg. “The chains that are charging more and where customers are perceiving that they’re getting a better-quality experience are the ones that are doing better.”
This year, those chains include Hilton (80) and Marriott (78), both of which scored above the industry average of 77. Of the brands that earned individual rankings, Wyndham brought up the rear at 70.
Finally, when it’s time to eat, it appears that consumers are finding their experiences at fast-food restaurants more satisfying than those at traditional sit-down restaurants. Both categories received a score of 80 but the former were up 1.3 percent while the latter slipped 2.4 percent.
Among those fast-food outlets, Papa John’s, Little Caesar, Subway and Dunkin’ donuts all scored 82 or higher. At the low end was McDonald’s, which, despite a score of 73, attained its highest score ever. The reasons, said ACSI, included expanded menu offerings, upgraded stores and good coffee.
Apparently, little travelers weren’t the only ones enjoying Happy Meals.
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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.