Last Updated Jun 21, 2011 8:41 AM EDT
It's probably never been a worse time to fly, a new study by the respected American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) has found.
The airline industry's average score dipped 2 percent to 65 out of a possible 100 points, the lowest grades among 47 industries surveyed. It's the worst score for airlines since 2009, and combined with higher fares, may make flying the least attractive it's been since 2001, and perhaps ever.
The not-so-bad news?
Hotel scores edged higher â€" up 3 percent to an average of 77 points. But that's still just a high "C" and it almost certainly means many hotel guests will be less than pleased with their vacation accommodations.
"Travel won't be a very satisfying experience this summer," says David VanAmburg, the survey's managing director.
Delta scores worst
Delta Air Lines had the airline industry's lowest score: a 56 out of 100, down nearly 10 percent from last year.
VanAmburg blamed the carrier's unsatisfactory marks on its recent merger with Northwest Airlines.
"For service industries in general, whether it be banks, wireless carriers, supermarkets, or in this case airlines, integrating two large portfolios of customers is difficult to do without causing some consternation to some customers," he told me. "For airlines there are the challenges of reservations, ticketing and loyalty programs, all of which must be integrated and there are often hiccups."
Other standouts include:
- Continental Airlines, which recently merged with United Airlines. It fell 10 percent to a 64 out of 100.
- United Airlines and US Airways tied for the second-lowest score (61).
- American Airlines remained unchanged at 63.
Increased baggage fees and higher fuel prices, which have raised fares, are whittling away at the industry's satisfaction scores, according to ACSI. Passengers who have to pay a baggage fee are less satisfied than they were a year ago, registering a satisfaction score of 58 â€" down 3 percent - versus 68 for passengers who are not required to pay a baggage check fee.
Unsurprisingly, the airline that charges no fees for the first and second checked bag, Southwest Airlines, also scored the highest. It received an 81, up 2.5 percent from a year ago.
"While other carriers have had to scale back on amenities or charge fees for them, Southwest has had essentially nothing to retreat from, in terms of charging for food and other items, since that's been Southwest's no-frills model for some time," says VanAmburg. "Southwest appears to have been more savvy at managing add-on charges that actually create better value perceptions for customers."
Hilton is top hotel chain
Among hotels, Hilton won with a score of 80, unchanged from last year. That's still a high "C", but the competition was close behind the company. Here's the full list:
Best Western (76)
An aggregate of smaller hotel chains accounted for the industry's overall gains. It jumped 4 percent to 77. The amorphous category includes small hotel and motel chains, individual luxury hotels and bed and breakfasts.
Lower rates and added perks gave customers the impression they were getting more for their travel dollar, according to ACSI.
And hotel guests thought upscale brands offered more, "even if there is additional cost to the guest associated with doing so," says VanAmburg. "That enhances the overall experience from the customer's perceptions."
What it all means
The travel industry's low scores are unlikely to affect travelers in a meaningful way. After all, fewer than 1 in 10 travelers fly to their summer vacation destination. And during the last few years, hotel guests have also gravitated toward less traditional lodging options such as short-term apartment rentals, home exchanges, timeshares, camping and staying with friends or relatives.
Despite its insistence that it wants to improve its service scores, both the airline and hotel industry have consistently proved otherwise by cutting services and adding new fees. The latest is Spirit Airlines' new $5 fee for printing a boarding pass at the gate. Starting next year, Spirit said it will also begin charging $1 to print a boarding pass at the airport kiosk. (I reported this new fee was being considered earlier this month.)
Incidentally, the talking heads who smugly decry the travel industry's lack of service would be wise to hold a mirror to their own faces. The airline industry, with its bottom-feeding scores, tied another business for the worst in the nation: newspapers.
Still, the conclusion seems inescapable: If you want good service, don't fly on a domestic airline or stay at a chain hotel.
You'll probably be disappointed.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.