By Rob Lovitt, msnbc.com contributor
So-called low-cost carriers may not always provide the bargains their names suggest but when it comes to customer satisfaction they?re delivering far better than their larger network competitors.
That?s among the findings from the latest J.D. Power and Associates North American Airlines Satisfaction Study. Released on Wednesday, the annual report found that average satisfaction scores for carriers in the ?low-cost? category increased 3 points, from 751 to 754 on a scale of 1,000, while those for network carriers declined 4 points, to 647.
?Part of the gap is due to cost and fees, whether it?s a matter of the base fares being a bit lower and/or the fact that the three highest-ranked airlines [JetBlue, Southwest and WestJet] in the study don?t charge for the first checked bag,? said Stuart Greif, vice president and general manager of the global travel and hospitality practice at the company.
?On average, charging for the first checked bag results in a satisfaction score that?s 85 points lower vs. not charging for it,? he told msnbc.com.
The study, which was based on 4,000 online communications between June 2011 and May 2012, measured customer satisfaction in seven areas: cost and fees, in-flight services, boarding/deplaning/baggage, flight crew, aircraft, check-in and reservations.
Compared to the year before, the industry average for the 12 ranked airlines fell slightly (from 683 to 681) while most individual scores echoed the gap between the two segments on a year-to-year basis:
- JetBlue: 776 (up 3 points)
- Southwest: 770 (up 1)
- WestJet: 733 (up 4)
- AirTran: 698 (up 8)
- Frontier: 694 (up 6)
- Alaska: 680 (down 2 points)
- Air Canada: 677 (down 1)
- Delta: 650 (up 9)
- Continental: 649 (down 12)
- American: 647 (down 9)
- United: 625 (down 15)
- US Airways: 614 (down 11)
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The overall decline is somewhat ironic, says Greif, in that the industry actually performed well last year: ?According to DOT statistics, last year had the best scores in terms of operational metrics ? on-time averages, mishandled bags, denied boardings and customer complaints ? in almost 22 years.?
On the other hand, ?passengers expect the plane to arrive on time and their bags to be handled properly,? he said. ?You don?t get credit for delivering on the basics.?
What you do get credit for, price aside, are processes and people that create a more pleasant experience. Speaking of the former, Greif cited Delta, which offers Wi-Fi on more than 3,000 daily flights and recently added power outlets in many gate areas so people can work or play while they wait and board with fully charged devices.
?Those efforts are starting to manifest in the numbers,? said Greif. ?Delta was the only traditional carrier to actually improve this year ? up 9 points.?
As for people, Greif cites WestJet, Southwest and JetBlue, which scored high for providing a service or hospitality orientation that creates satisfied customers and brand loyalty, an orientation other carriers might be wise to emulate.
?There?s a need and an opportunity in the industry for better hospitality,? he said, which, if implemented, can offset some of the negatives currently associated with flying.
?I may not enjoy the experience and customer service scores may be low,? said Greif, ?but, you know what, people throughout treated me well. That?s how you get a connection to a brand.?
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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.