United ranks as America's bottom-rated legacy airline

Americans love to hate the country’s airlines. 

Consumers surveyed by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) rank the airline industry in the bottom-third of all sectors, putting the likes of United Airlines (UAL) and American Airlines (AAL) neck-and-neck with hospitals and private utilities, and just slightly ahead of health insurers. Still, airlines did show some improvement from a year earlier, which the ACSI found was largely tied to lower prices. 

The survey was completed before United Airlines sparked worldwide outrage over its treatment of a passenger who was violently dragged from his seat. The man, Dr. David Dao, had been bumped from the flight but refused to leave his seat, leading police officers to intervene. Even so, ACSI director David VanAmburg said consumers are more likely to judge an airline by their own experience, rather than the brand image. 

Flying “is just not a terribly comfortable experience,” he said. Consumers often feel “as long as you can make it affordable, I will suffer through the rest of it knowing that I’ll get to where I want to go quickly.”

United is the bottom-ranked legacy airline, earning a score of 70 points, or slightly better than its 2016 score of 68. The top-rated legacy airline is American, which earned 76 points, the survey found. 

American Airlines was involved in a recent incident in which an attendant struck a mother of twins with a stroller. Yet the type of problems that are more likely to impact travelers’ views are the types of widespread delays and cancellations experienced by Delta (DAL) earlier this month, VanAmburg said. 

Almost four out of 10 economy class passengers reported paying a fee this year to check bags, the survey found. Interestingly, the biggest complainers are business class travelers, without almost one-third filing a complaint with carriers. That falls to one out of 10 for economy class travelers. 

So what do travelers hate about flying? Seat comfort (or discomfort) gets called out as the most problematic part of the experience, the survey found. 

Seat comfort earned a score of 71, slightly better than the year earlier’s 67, although VanAmburg chalked that up to more airlines offering “premium economy” seats, which have more legroom and breathing space. The second worst-rated part of the experience are in-flight services, which include beverages, food, movies and music. 

JetBlue scored as the top-rated airline, thanks to a loyal following of consumers who like its low fares and in-flight entertainment options. Its service prompted one travel blog to ask, “Why can’t American be more like JetBlue?!”

ACSI bases its scores on interviews with more than 180,000 customers each year. The airlines were rated over a 12-month period that ended in March 2017. 

Below are the airlines by ACSI score, which is in parenthesis. 

1. JetBlue (82)
2. Southwest (80)
3. Alaska (78)
4. American (76)
5. Delta (76)
6. All others (74)
7. Allegiant (71)
8. United (70)
9. Frontier (63)
10. Spirit (61)