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Why cut-rate carriers are No. 1

Image: JetBlue aircraft landing in Burbank
JetBlue's well-known meltdown over Valentine's Day a year ago made headlines, but travelers still flock to the low-cost carrier. Why? Columnist Christopher Elliott talked to you for answers.Damian Dovarganes / AP file

Discount carriers used to be the darlings of air travelers, if not travel columnists. With low fares and high standards of customer service, what wasn’t to like?

Then JetBlue had its embarrassing Valentine’s Day meltdown more than a year ago, in which dozens of flights sat on a frozen JFK airport tarmac for up to 11 hours. And then Southwest had its humiliating safety scandal for operating almost 50 planes that missed their safety inspections. It faces a record $10.2 million civil penalty.

It’s enough to make you want to fly one of those pricey network airlines, isn’t it?

Actually, no.

I asked readers to nominate their favorite airlines, and wouldn’t you know it, the low-fare airlines still kicked butt. I also boarded a Southwest flight after the inspection snafu, and found no evidence that the carrier had fallen out of favor with fliers.

Why? Here’s your take on each of these low-fare airlines:

JetBlue: ‘They screw up less’
JetBlue pulled some very respectable numbers last year, even when you factor in the tarmac stranding incidents. A closer look at the 2007 Transportation Department report card shows that JetBlue lost less luggage, bumped fewer passengers and didn’t generate as many complaints as most of the major airlines. Yes, even when you count the gripes about the ice storm.

But performance is only part of the reason you favored JetBlue. After all, other airlines did as well — or better — than JetBlue in many categories, but failed to make customers as happy. So what’s the secret? Passengers say it’s because they’re treated with dignity by employees who seem to genuinely care. And that kind of corporate culture is something their competitors (except maybe one, which I’ll get to in a second) just can’t match.

“The flight crews are very friendly and accommodating, there is plenty of leg room at each leather seat and the personal TVs keep everyone entertained,” says Elaine Canter, a reader from Mamaroneck, N.Y. “What a pleasure.”

Adds another reader, Aaron Gold: “They have a reasonable amount of seat room and their fares are pretty decent.”

All of that is nice. But Stan Prus, an attorney from New York, says he loves JetBlue for a simple reason: “They screw up less.”

I’ve always felt that JetBlue is one of the best airlines in America, even after the media pounced on it more than a year ago for the whole ice storm incident. But I was genuinely surprised by the passionate response from readers, whose experiences remind me of what flying was like before airline deregulation — a pleasant, civil experience that the entire family enjoyed.

Southwest: ‘They truly seem to care about customers’
Like JetBlue, this always-profitable, no-frills airline does well in the Transportation Department rankings. Not perfect, but good enough to set it apart from many of the bottom-feeding network airlines. For example, the government recorded only 266 complaints against Southwest in 2007, or 0.26 gripes per 100,000 enplanements — the second-lowest number behind island-hopping Aloha Airlines. The worst performer, US Airways, had a mind-blowing 1,828 complaints, or about 3.16 grievances per 100,000 enplanements.

JetBlue's numbers on mishandled baggage were so-so — 5.87 reports per 1,000 passengers — which put it in the top half of the flock. (The worst record belonged to American Eagle, which mishandled more than 1 in 100 bags it put its hands on.)

But again, it’s possible to do everything right and still get it wrong. I mean, United Airlines, Continental Airlines and Northwest Airlines had a better baggage-handling record, but they failed to get as much love from customers. How come?

In order to understand the reasons, I spoke with some of the raving customers.

“Once, a Southwest pilot saw me struggling with the overhead storage of my travel bag and graciously helped me,” says Carolyn Steel, a retired stockbroker. “I was surprised and pleased to be so well treated. I am a senior and would choose Southwest over all of the others.”

It isn’t just the go-the-extra-mile service that’s delivered with a real smile, but a truly user-friendly airline, according to customers. It’s easy to change reservations, easy to board planes, easy to cash in award tickets, and, most importantly, Southwest is easy to fly. “They truly seem to care about customers,” says Diane Daniel, a writer based in Durham, N.C.

“I like Southwest because of its engaging flight attendants, its generally good on-time performance, its use of Americans-only phone agents and its round-trip pricing method, where legs are priced separately,” says reader Gibbs LaMotte. “But most of all because of its change policies: no $100 fees and no restriction on using the unused return leg of a round trip ticket.”

Why I’m flying JetBlue and Southwest
Coincidentally, I recently needed to buy airline tickets from Orlando to New York and Orlando to Los Angeles. I ended up booking one set of tickets on JetBlue and the other on Southwest. Here’s why.

On the first flight from Orlando to New York, the network airlines offered more expensive flights with a one-stop. AirTran had a comparable price, but less convenient times. A family of five with two kids under three can’t take an evening flight that gets them to their destination after midnight. It’s just not practical.

I also knew JetBlue offered free seatback TVs, but more importantly, that the flight attendants treated kids well. My five-year-old son, who is not all that brand-aware, knows the difference between JetBlue and another airline. And he almost always prefers JetBlue. How they managed to leave that kind of impression on a kindergartner, I have no idea.

On the second transcontinental flight, JetBlue was not as competitive. The major airlines came much closer to matching JetBlue’s price, and even offered a non-stop flight, which is a big bonus when you’re flying with young children.

So why did we pick the less convenient one-stop flight on Southwest, with no change of planes? Because it cost almost $400 less than the flights offered by JetBlue and the other big airlines, because the flight took only about an extra hour — and because it was Southwest.

Southwest is another airline that my kids recognize. The flight attendants hand out trinkets to keep them busy and they don’t treat them like hazardous cargo.

JetBlue and Southwest weren’t the cheapest airlines flying to New York and Los Angeles. AirTran Airways and Spirit Airlines were. But for us, they were the best choices.

Based on your feedback, they are for many of you, too.