J.D. Power says Alaska, JetBlue are the best of the worst — but who cares?

Our friends at J.D. Power and Associates are at it again. Last week they leaked their 2009 North America Airline Satisfaction Study to a largely uncritical mainstream media. This morning, they let the rest of us have the results, in which they claim “overall customer satisfaction with airlines in 2009 has declined for a third consecutive year to a four-year low.” But has it? And does that mean anything?

I’ve been critical of J.D. Power and its methodology in the past. But I wanted to review this year’s results with an open mind.

Here’s their summary:

Alaska Airlines ranks highest in customer satisfaction among traditional network carriers, while JetBlue Airways ranks highest among low-cost carriers.

The study measures overall customer satisfaction based on performance in seven measures (in order of importance): cost and fees; flight crew; in-flight services; aircraft; boarding/deplaning/baggage; check-in; and reservation. Carriers are ranked in two segments: traditional network and low-cost. Traditional network carriers are defined as airlines that operate multicabin aircraft and use multiple airport hubs, while low-cost carriers are defined as airlines that operate single-cabin aircraft with typically lower fares.

For some reason, J.D. Power divides the rankings between legacy and discount airlines, even though passengers stopped drawing that distinction long ago.

Here’s the breakdown for the network airlines:

Alaska Airlines ranks highest in the traditional network carrier segment for a second consecutive year, and performs particularly well in five of seven measures: flight crew; aircraft; boarding/deplaning/baggage; check-in; and reservation. Continental Airlines and Delta Airlines, respectively, follow Alaska Airlines in the rankings. Continental Airlines performs particularly well in the in-flight services and cost and fees measures.

But a closer look at the results reveals … nothing.


What do those circles mean? What are the numbers behind them? J.D. Power offers only clues.

The 2009 North America Airline Satisfaction Study measures customer satisfaction of both business and leisure travelers with major North American carriers. The study is based on responses from more than 12,900 passengers who flew on a major North American airline between April 2008 and May 2009. The study was fielded between May 2008 and May 2009.

A chart accompanying its press release doesn’t really do much to clarify, either.


So that’s it. We get circles and aggregate scores but not the number of votes cast for each airline, or even how they voted? I guess we just have to take J.D.’s word for it, right?

Well, truth be told, I think they’re more or less correct. I believe airline service is at a four-year low … and then some. Passengers are indignant about the new fees, despite the airline industry’s insistence to the contrary.

But even if you accept J.D. Power’s ratings at face value, as my colleagues in the press almost certainly will, then you’re left with this: How ’bout them numbers?

The top scorer, Alaska, got 671 out of a possible 1,000 points, which is a “D.” If the other airlines were getting letter grades, they’d have to take the class over again.

That’s nothing to brag about.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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