'Low-Cost' Carriers Tops for Customer Satisfaction

Tim Rue/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It's no secret that low-cost carriers have won over the hearts of travelers everywhere. But it may not be for the reason you think: When it comes to price, there's typically not a whole lot of difference on routes where low-cost carriers compete with the legacy carriers. Sometimes, the low-cost carriers actually cost more.

But a new survey from J.D. Power and Associates found that cost, as well as fees, are just two of the factors that lead to higher customer satisfaction. More than 70 percent of passenger satisfaction was driven by other parts of the overall experience, namely, a carrier's policies and people.

The study measures overall customer satisfaction based on performance in seven categories (in order of importance): cost and fees; in-flight services; boarding/deplaning/baggage; flight crew; aircraft; check-in; and reservations.

The two airlines, JetBlue and Southwest, both low-cost, ranked highest and performed well in many categories that had nothing to do with price and fees. JetBlue scored well for in-flight services and aircraft; Southwest for boarding/deplaning/baggage; check-in; and reservations.

The absence of fees, however, does make a difference. Satisfaction for airlines that charge for bags was 85 points lower, on average, than for those that don't. Among traditional carriers, Air Canada, which allows one free checked bag, performed well. The two airlines that scored highest overall - JetBlue at No. 1 and Southwest at No. 2 - don't charge for a first checked bag. Southwest doesn't even charge for a second checked bag.

Alaska Airlines came in first among traditional carriers for the fifth consecutive year.

Overall, satisfaction with low-cost carriers rose for the third consecutive year, satisfaction with traditional carriers fell. Among the traditional carriers, the only one that increased its satisfaction ranking was Delta.

"Despite the need for some carriers to charge unpopular fees, they can gain a competitive advantage by focusing their efforts on efficiency and positive interactions with the staff and crew," said Jessica McGregor, senior manager of the global travel and hospitality practice at J.D. Power and Associates.

Traditional carrier rankings:

  1. Alaska Airlines
  2. Air Canada
  3. Delta Airlines
  4. Continental Airlines
  5. American Airlines
  6. United Airlines
  7. US Airways

Low-cost carrier rankings:

  1. JetBlue Airways
  2. Southwest Airlines
  3. West Jet
  4. AirTran Airways
  5. Frontier