J.D. Power Survey Extols LCC Services
JetBlue Airways earned the highest marks among major North American airlines in a J.D. Power and Associates survey released last month that measures carrier performance in seven areas, including cost, inflight service, aircraft and reservations. The study, based on responses from 9,653 passengers who flew in the past year, shows a divide in customer-service perception between legacy carriers and what J.D Power defined as low-cost carriers—"airlines that operate single-cabin aircraft with typically low fares."
"JetBlue continues to lead in satisfaction with low-cost carriers by a significant margin," according to Linda Hirneise, executive director of the J.D. Power travel practice. "Although the airline fell prey to severe weather delays in February 2007, they have been able to retain feelings of goodwill among their passenger base."
On a 1,000-point scale, JetBlue garnered 810 points, while the entire low-cost carrier category, including Frontier, Southwest and AirTran, averaged 748 points. Hirneise noted that JetBlue's overall score dipped modestly from last year, but it still led all categories.
"They still are highest-ranked across all the key drivers," Hirneise said. "Their greatest score, which is a low-weight value, is in satisfaction with reservations, but that is followed by the flight crew. The message to carriers is to focus on the controllables—the people and process factors."
Hirneise said network carriers as a segment declined in the overall rankings by eight points, while low-cost carriers' average shot up by six points, anchored by improved performances by Frontier and Southwest.
AirTran, the lowest scorer in the low-cost category, achieved 721 points—beating out Continental Airlines, its closest legacy competitor at 704 points. Delta Air Lines and American Airlines rounded out the top three network carriers, as Air Canada and Northwest Airlines fell to the bottom.
Inflight services and amenities remain a major differentiator between the low-cost and legacy categories. JetBlue and Frontier led all carriers based on rankings in inflight services, Hirneise said.
"It comes as no surprise Southwest is lowest-ranked in the low-cost inflight services category because they have none—they have no XM Radio, they have no satellite TV—and they know that. It's their business model, but Frontier is starting to put in a little since they have the satellite TV. There's still a significant difference between Frontier and JetBlue, but those two are the leading carriers in the low-cost area."
Although Southwest has few frills or onboard amenities, the carrier has not severely altered inflight features or begun charging for once-free offerings, Hirneise said.
Meanwhile, many legacy carriers in recent years have been taking away the inflight services once included in the fare.
"Southwest managed that from the get-go. They didn't deviate from their original business model. They don't fill you up with amenities and get you excited about the carrier and then take those away," Hirneise said. "Traditional network carriers all started out with a complimentary meal, all had blankets and pillows, and all had inflight magazines. Very few have any combination of that anymore. American even took the pillows away."
Of the network carriers, Continental led the segment in inflight services, followed by Delta and Air Canada. "Continental still does offer a small complimentary meal, and they're the only of the legacies across the coach cabin to do that," Hirneise said. "The bottom-ranked when it comes to inflight services, as measured by the voice of customers, is Northwest. They virtually offer nothing anymore."
Hirneise said many inflight amenities might come back, but not necessarily in the form most passengers want, since carriers are seeking to monetize offerings and drive non-ticket passenger revenue.
"Carriers are using it as a revenue generator," Hirneise said. "Passengers understand that they have to pay for value-added services, but they don't want to be nickel-and-dimed. Many more carriers are going to that menu approach—there's no doubt about that—but if you ask the customers, they'd rather see a bundling."
Even amenities that appear to be free come with a price tag, Hirneise said. "Most will say they have complimentary inflight movies, but what if you don't bring a headset? 'We have a complimentary movie, however, if you didn't bring a headset, we have headsets available for two dollars and you can use them on future flights.' "
J.D. Power this year took a deeper look at generational differences. "While passengers among all age groups report that complimentary meals and inflight movies are the amenities they want most during a flight, higher percentages of younger passengers express a desire for high-tech amenities," J.D. Power noted in the study.
"Gen X and Gen Y generations are up to seven times more likely to say they want radio stations, DC power outlets—because they're thinking about their IPods or whatever—and video games," Hirneise said. "It's all about entertainment for Gen X and Gen Y."
Fifty-four percent of Generation X passengers—those born between 1965 and 1976—said they would like in-seat satellite or live television. Generation Y passengers born between 1977 and 1994 "are seven times more likely to want inflight video games than are pre-Boomers (born in 1945 and earlier)," the study noted.