Airline study shows trouble

Customers report rising displeasure

April 04, 2006|By COX NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The overall quality of service on major U.S. airlines declined significantly last year, reaching its lowest level in five years, according to a report released yesterday.

In an annual study that ranks customer service on domestic airlines, 15 of the country's largest carriers scored lower for 2005 than the previous year, while only one airline showed improvement.

Discount carrier JetBlue ranked first in service for a third straight year followed by AirTran, and the one new addition to the list, Independence Air, came in third before it quit operations in January. At the bottom of the rankings are U.S. Airways, Comair and Atlantic Southeast.

Types of airlines appeared to be grouped together in the rankings, with discount carriers at the top and older "legacy" airlines such as American and Continental in the middle. Smaller-volume regional carriers tended to rank lowest.

Average scores for all airlines in the four categories used to measure quality of service - timeliness, denied boarding, mishandled baggage and customer complaints - slipped over the past year.

Lost or misdirected luggage incidents among all airlines increased by roughly 25 percent from 2004 - the largest increase in the 16-year history of the survey - and customer complaints rose 17 per- cent.

Researchers said the results paint a bleak picture for where the airline industry is headed.

The study was conducted by business professors at Wichita State University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha and focused on the 17 largest U.S. carriers, using information collected by the government from the airlines.

"Unfortunately, as we've gotten back up to the pre-9/11 capacity levels, we've only had problems that have been aggravated and not solved," said Brent Bowen of the University of Nebraska, who co-authored the report.

"Because we're not solving these problems, I think we're probably going to be in a crisis position in just a few years," Bowen said.

Researchers attributed the declines to a number of factors including scaled-back perks, higher prices and employees who are less concerned with how customers are treated.

Bowen said airline workers feel increasingly exploited by their employers and have less of an incentive to provide quality service.

"The work force is probably as demoralized as any of us would be if our jobs were flailing, our pay was cut in half, our benefits were cut out and our pensions were taken away," Bowen said. "Expecting the work force to be as customer-oriented as it has been in the past is probably not reasonable."

The report did not make specific recommendations on how to improve airline quality. However, the study's authors said that if airlines don't take notice, the situation will get worse as air travel increases.

"We're only growing the system now," said Dean Headley, the study's other co-author. "Unless we fix a few things, we'll probably continue to have poorer and poorer performances as the years go by."

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