A Breath of Fresh Air from a Travel Journalist

(written at 35,000 ft. on AA flt. 2, LAX-JFK)

I was pleasantly surprised to read a blog post this morning from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Sky Talk Blog, which covers the airline industry (especially airline industry news related to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which explains why the blog has a place in my RSS feed).

The blog post itself was nice enough — reporting the surprising news that airline passenger satisfaction has actually risen for the first time in three years — but it was a minor detail that grabbed me.

The author, Andrea Ahles, chose to separately list the scores for "Network Carriers" from "Low-cost Carriers."

Turns out JD Power and Associates, the authors of the study in question, make the same separation. But in their zealousness to point out changing "trends" in air travel, media outlets often conflate the two categories and report the statistics together, a practice that heavily inflates the perceived customer satisfaction with low-cost carriers. Yes, for the casual traveler trying to choose between taking their trip on JetBlue or Continental being able to compare the two carriers might be useful. But when examining the airline industry as a whole, comparing low-cost carriers with the legacies is like comparing apples and Buicks.

I should also note that I'm always baffled by these studies. In this recent one, Alaska Airlines (not surprisingly) was far-and-away the best of the "Traditional" (that's JD Power's word) carriers. What's cool is that you can see the rankings broken down by category. For example, Alaska gets five stars for "boarding experience," Continental gets four, and the rest (AA, UA, USAir, Delta, Air Canada) all get three. Why is that? I've flown on Alaska dozens of times, and I can't say that I've ever noticed any real difference between their boarding process and, say, AA's or Delta's. Clearly, Alaska customers are perceiving that something about their boarding process is better. But what and why?