Are we really happy with air travel?
(CNN) — We’re so annoyed about paying airlines to check our luggage.
Never mind the bother of fitting into their tiny seats or paying for those pricy snacks.
Or maybe not.
Many fliers are actually enjoying their air travel experiences — and even more than last year, according to the J.D Power and Associates 2016 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, released Wednesday.
Satisfaction with North American airlines rose for a fourth straight year, measuring at a record high 726 points on a scale of 1,000.
That’s a nine-point increase over last year’s results.
The study, which is split between traditional and low-cost carriers, measured passenger satisfaction with North American airlines based on seven criteria.
Ranked in order of importance, they are costs and fees; in-flight services; boarding, deplaning and baggage; flight crew; aircraft; check-in; and reservations.
JetBlue Airways dominated the rankings, placing first for the 11th consecutive year, with 790 points. It also earned more points than any other airline, whether low-cost or legacy.
Southwest Airlines came in second place (789 points), followed by WestJet in third (723) and Frontier Airlines in fourth (662). The average rating for the low-cost carriers increased 9 points to 775.
“Costs and fees still matter,” said Rick Garlick, J.D. Power’s global travel and hospitality practice lead, via email.
“But experience matters, too,” he said. “JetBlue won its 12th straight award not just because it’s ‘low cost,’ but also because of the excellent service culture it promotes. Southwest always does well for the same reason.
“These airlines know their customers and tailor a specific offering to appeal to their needs.”
Alaska Airlines topped the rankings of North American legacy carriers for the ninth consecutive year, earning 751 points, followed by Delta Air Lines in second place (725 points) and American Airlines (including American-owned US Airways) in third (693 points).
The average rating for legacy carriers increased eight points to 703 points out of a possible 1,000. Air Canada came in fourth with 681, followed by United Airlines (675).
“I’m not surprised to see that JetBlue and Alaska Airlines have again topped the low-cost and traditional segments,” said Benét J. Wilson, air travel expert at About.com. “Both have worked hard to offer a great passenger experience, and they have very loyal travelers.”
But the two carriers “only have a market share of 4.5 percent and 5.3%, respectively, according to the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics,” she said. “They don’t have the reach that second-place low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines or second-place carrier Delta Air Lines do.”
Complaints vs. performance
It’s not all free of turbulence.
Despite industry improvements, U.S. airline customer complaints rose by 38% from 2014 to 2015, according to the 26th annual national Airline Quality Rating report, released in April.
“This is the worst complaints have been for 15 years, as a rate. The last time it got this high was in 2001,” said report co-author Dean Headley, a researcher at Wichita State University’s business school.
“Yes, complaints are up, but so is performance,” said Rick Garlick, J.D. Power’s global travel and hospitality practice lead, via email.
“External data suggest on-time arrivals are up, lost baggage is down,” Garlick said. “Additionally, airlines are reinvesting profits into newer planes, improved inflight entertainment, Wi-Fi, power outlets, etc.”
“Add to this the fact that the annoyance over baggage fees grows less each year, and you have higher satisfaction despite what you may think or have heard.”
The satisfaction study was based on responses from 10,348 passengers who flew on a major North American airline between March 2015 and March 2016.