I'll admit that I'm not a huge fan of flying, but I don't believe I'm in the minority here. The entire process, from being shuffled through the airport like cattle and being crammed like a sardine into economy class, can make for an unpleasant, cumbersome, and time-consuming process, especially if you're traveling across country (as I'm scheduled to do tomorrow morning).
The thing is, even though the airline industry is largely disliked, much like the banking sector, it's still a necessary industry. Unless you want to spend 40 hours driving cross-country, flying is an incredibly safe and time-efficient means of travel.
What we really should note is that some airlines frankly do a better job than others in terms of "going the extra mile" (pardon the horrible pun) for their customers. We know not all airlines are created equally, but it's really difficult to cut through thousands of online opinions to get any sort of consensus.
Thank goodness we have Consumer Reports, which last May issued its rankings, from top to bottom, of the nation's best and worst airlines as ranked by 16,663 subscribers who flew on a combined 31,732 domestic flights. The ratings themselves looked at aspects of the travel process including their satisfaction with the check-in process, the cabin service, cabin cleanliness, overall seat comfort, in-flight entertainment, and baggage handling. Combined, these ratings give us a condensed but wide-swath look at which airlines are leading the pack in customer satisfaction, and which are failing miserably.
Here are the full ratings according to Consumer Reports for the nation's 11 largest domestic airlines (note, this report was issued before the completion of the US Airways-American Airlines merger):
A surprising leader
Let's begin at the top with privately held Virgin America making its first appearance in these annual rankings and handily claiming the top spot.
Consumers awarded a number of obvious advantages to Virgin America, including its comfortable economy seats, a top-notch score for baggage handling, and an in-flight entertainment system on all of its planes, including Wi-Fi. The real advantage for Virgin America is that it's stepped up its purchase of newer planes, which can be up to 25% more fuel-efficient than the older model planes that some of the major airlines are operating. In 2010, for example, Virgin America announced the purchase of 40 A320s from Airbus in an effort to boost capacity and also leveraged its fuel economy (it would later reduce this order to just 20 A320's in 2012). These new planes were also made with a sharklet, which is a wingtip device designed to improve payload and fuel economy by up to 3.5%. Given the millions of gallons of fuel saved annually by this device, it's no wonder Virgin is excelling with its newer fleet and finally turning profits.
These airlines are doing a good job
The next five airlines can all hold their head high as well, because they each excelled in a number of areas that hit home with consumers and are helping to build customer loyalty.
Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV), for example, is no surprise at the No. 2 spot, nor is JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) at No. 3. Known for its "bags fly free" program, Southwest aims to entice the frequent flier with a perk that's becoming increasingly rare. Southwest allows fliers to check up to two bags for free while JetBlue offers its fliers the ability to check in their first bag for free. Clearly, fliers have big expectations throughout the entire flying process, but this concession from Southwest and JetBlue continues to win them favor among passengers.
The tiny Hawaiian Airlines, which is owned by Hawaiian Holdings, squeaks in at No. 4, probably because of its consistency. Because it operates in regional routes, it can focus on making those routes as efficient as possible, while also comfortable for its passengers. Hawaiian Airlines received good marks for pretty much everything except in-flight entertainment, which is a combination of either complementary audio channels or its in-flight video magazine.
Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK) at No. 5 is a familiar face for investors, as it's consistently outperformed in even the toughest times. As someone who chooses Alaska more often than any other airline listed here, I can agree with its high marks in the check-in process and cabin service. Having flown nearly all of the airlines on this list, Alaska has been the most consistent of the bunch in my opinion. On the flipside, Wi-Fi service still isn't available on all domestic flights (though the majority do have Wi-Fi) and their planes lack an in-flight entertainment system, save for its digEplayer.
Lastly in this grouping is Frontier Airlines, which tends to rely on its regional routes and competitively low pricing to lure in return customers.
No love for the majors
As should come as no surprise, travelers were pretty unforgiving, with major carriers such as American Airlines Group (NASDAQ:AAL) (which is composed of US Airways and American Airlines), Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines, which is part of United Continental Holdings.
What these airlines do well in terms of hitting major, and to some extent even off-route, destinations, is often cancelled by heavy amounts of debt, which makes purchasing new planes difficult. In other words, Delta, United, and American Airlines Group are dealing with considerably older fleets than their national or regional peers, which hurts their margins and impairs comfort factors that passengers look for. What we saw from the Consumer Reports ratings were generally low marks for seat comfort, cabin cleanliness, and in-flight entertainment. With higher overall pricing and lower comfort factors, it's no wonder that major airlines have had to turn toward points cards to encourage brand loyalty.
The worst of the worst
However, rounding out the bottom of the rankings, by a mile, was deep-discount carrier Spirit Airlines (NASDAQ:SAVE).
This was, in part, a bit of a shock because it demonstrates that price really isn't everything. But we also have to keep in context the nature of the study, and price wasn't a factor! Instead, Consumer Reports' rankings primary revolved around comfort and efficiency. Generally you're going to get what you pay for when you're dealing with a regional or national airline, and there are few, if any, airlines that are going to compete with Spirit Airlines on a price-per-ticket basis.
However, Spirit is also going to nickel-and-dime you for each optional service that you need. Because these optional services are often paid for online or at a point-of-sale machine and rarely through a live agent it usually means beefy margins for Spirit. Assuming you're not part of their $9 fare club, you'll be paying $30 for a first checked bag, $40 for a second checked bag, $85 for each additional bag, and $35 for a carry-on bag -- and that's if you pay during your online booking. Should you do this at the airport, the price jumps by $15 for each item, or to $100 for each item at the gate! Spirit even charges customers a fee of $1 to $50 if you choose your own seat! These fees, coupled with its tight seat spacing led to its extremely low satisfaction marks.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
The Motley Fool has no position in any companies mentioned in this article. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.