updated 5/19/2009 12:02:09 AM ET 2009-05-19T04:02:09

Airlines are doing a better job of taking care of the passengers they still have, according to a new study.

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Passenger satisfaction with airline service rose 3.2 percent earlier this year, the first increase in six years, according to a University of Michigan study to be released Tuesday.

The increase came as the number of passengers dropped and airlines reduced flying. Also passengers checked fewer bags as luggage fees became more common, making it easier for airlines to keep track of the bags that remained. Enplanements on U.S. routes dropped 1.5 percent in 2008, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

And if fewer passengers are the reason for the improved satisfaction score, imagine how happy they'll be this year, when the FAA expects domestic boardings to fall 8.8 percent.

Southwest Airlines Co. had the highest score, 81 on a zero-to-100 scale. After that it was Continental Airlines Inc. at 68, Delta Air Lines Inc. at 64, AMR Corp.'s American Airlines at 60, US Airways Group Inc. at 59, Northwest Airlines at 57, and UAL Corp.'s United Airlines at 56.

The overall satisfaction improvement at airlines masked some big jumps at individual carriers, according to the university's American Customer Satisfaction Index.

The most improved were Continental Airlines Inc., up 9.7 percent, and US Airways Group Inc., up 9.3 percent. Customer satisfaction at US Airways was on the rebound after a big drop in 2007, when it had the worst on-time showing among big carriers. For 2008, US Airways was first among big carriers for on-time arrivals.

Continental also regained lost ground after a drop the previous year. Delta Air Lines Inc.'s score rose 6.7 percent.

American Airlines' score fell 3.2 percent, though it was still in the middle of the airline pack.

American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith said the airline's internal customer satisfaction measurements show big improvements from a year ago. He said American has "customer experience teams" at its airports that look for ways to improve customer service, and that last week American paid out some $14 million in employee rewards for meeting customer service and operational goals.

United's score was unchanged from last year, when it was also in last place.

"We need to focus on the basics of running a good airline, and that means one that runs on-time with clean planes. When our flights are on-time and our planes are clean, we can deliver great service to our customers," United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said.

Claes Fornell, a University of Michigan business professor and director of the research center that compiled the customer satisfaction data on airlines and other industries, said traffic dropoff appears to have as much to do with the airline improvement as any action taken by the airlines.

"Nobody's making any money," he said. "It's very difficult in that environment to provide good customer service."

The study noted that even though airlines showed some improvement, their average score of 64 was good enough for a tie with newspapers but lower than most other industries measured, including utilities (74), the Postal Service (82), express delivery companies (82), movies (70), and cellular phone service (69).

The phone survey of about 25,000 people during the first quarter of this year had them rate their satisfaction with companies in a variety of industries, including airlines. The index was created based on responses to questions about overall satisfaction, intention to be a repeat customer and perception of quality, value and expectations.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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