Two years ago, Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) toppled JetBlue Airways (NASDAQ:JBLU) in the annual J.D. Power North America Airline Satisfaction Study, following 12 consecutive wins by JetBlue. Southwest repeated that feat in 2018.

JetBlue Airways regained its place at the top of the airline industry in the 2019 J.D. Power study, which was released earlier this week. However, it didn't unseat Southwest Airlines. Instead, the two popular low-fare airlines shared the customer satisfaction title this year, achieving the same score: an impressive 817 points (out of a possible 1,000).

The JetBlue comeback continues

JetBlue started to lose its grip on the top spot in the J.D. Power survey in 2016, as its decision to start charging for checking a single bag appeared to irk some customers. Around the same time, JetBlue also announced that it would modestly reduce the legroom on its Airbus A320 jets to squeeze in two extra rows. It hadn't implemented that plan yet in 2016, but news reports about shrinking legroom still may have dinged its reputation.

A JetBlue Airways airplane preparing to land.

JetBlue has regained its spot at the top of the annual J.D. Power airline rankings. Image source: JetBlue Airways.

This caused JetBlue's score to slip to 790 in 2016 from 801 a year earlier. Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines improved its score from 781 to 789, nearly overtaking its rival. In 2017, JetBlue's J.D. Power score rebounded to 803, but that couldn't stop it from ceding the top spot to Southwest, which posted an excellent score of 807.

Southwest and JetBlue improved on their scores again in 2018, reaching 818 points and 812 points, respectively. And in the 2019 edition of the J.D. Power airline study, JetBlue improved further to a score of 817 points, tying with Southwest Airlines.

Different strengths

The J.D. Power airline scores are derived from customer surveys covering seven aspects of the air travel experience. Ranked from highest to lowest weight, they are:

  1. Cost and fees
  2. In-flight services
  3. Aircraft
  4. Boarding/deplaning/baggage
  5. Flight crew
  6. Check-in
  7. Reservations

JetBlue led the pack in three of the seven categories: aircraft, flight crew, and in-flight services. It also tied for first in another three categories. Its points of strength were not very surprising. Most notably, while JetBlue is squeezing more seats onto certain planes, it still has the most legroom in coach of any U.S. airline. Moreover, its redesigned cabin features wider seats, larger TVs with touch screens and three times as many satellite TV channels -- plus pause-and-rewind functionality -- free Wi-Fi with an extended coverage area, and in-seat power outlets.

J.D. Power noted that travelers continue to give airlines the worst grades for in-flight services. JetBlue's standout performance in this area -- due to its seatback TVs and free Wi-Fi -- likely gives it a boost in the aircraft and flight crew categories, too, as entertained customers are happy customers.

As for Southwest Airlines, it matched JetBlue's overall score by vastly outperforming all of its competitors in the highest-weighted category: cost and fees. That's also completely unsurprising. While Southwest's fares aren't especially low anymore, the carrier's "bags fly free" policy and its lack of change fees have endeared it to customers.

Looking ahead

As JetBlue completes its cabin upgrades over the next year and a half or so, its advantage in the in-flight services department should continue to grow. On the other hand, the carrier plans to mimic most of its major rivals later this year by rolling out a version of "basic economy" fares. Most airlines' basic economy fares do not permit advance seat assignments, so customers have to select a higher fare to sit with a family member or avoid a middle seat. Customers buying basic economy tickets also typically board last.

While this new fare structure should boost JetBlue's unit revenue and profitability, it could also provoke some customer backlash -- similar to the move to start charging for bags a few years ago. This may allow Southwest to regain sole possession of first place in the next year or two. (Then again, Southwest's growing Boeing 737 MAX fleet poses its own set of reputational risks.)

That said, JetBlue's J.D. Power score recovered in just a year after dipping in 2016 when the carrier took away some perks. Its score has continued to improve since then, indicating that it didn't take long for consumers to accept the pricing scheme changes. Thus, there's a good chance that any drop in JetBlue's score related to the introduction of basic economy fares later this year will prove short-lived.