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Airlines Slip in Customer Satisfaction

The industry ranks near the bottom according to the 2007 American Customer Satisfaction Index.
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A new survey says the quality of customer service at the nation's major airlines declined in the past year, apparently due to personnel cuts and more crowded airplanes.

Overall, the airline industry has lower customer satisfaction than any industry surveyed except for the cable TV and satellite industry according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, produced by the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and its partners.

The 14-year-old survey measures product and service quality at airlines, utilities, mail and package delivery providers, hospitals, hotels, fast food restaurants and TV and telecommunications companies. For each company, 200 customers were contacted during a random telephone survey during the first quarter.

Industries are graded on a 100-point scale. In 2007, the index reached an overall score of 75.2, its highest ever. But the airline industry was at 63, down three points from 2006.

The decline was led by

United

(UAUA)

, which fell 11% to 56 points. Second worst was

Delta

(DAL) - Get Delta Air Lines, Inc. Report

, which fell 8% to 59. Both carriers shed thousands of employees in bankruptcy reorganizations.

Southwest

(LUV) - Get Southwest Airlines Co. Report

led all carriers, with a ranking of 76.

Continental

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(CAL) - Get Caleres, Inc. Report

had 69.

US Airways

(LCC)

and

Northwest

(NWACQ)

both scored 61.

American

(AMR)

scored 60.

"When you are talking about service, you are talking about personnel or technology that can replace personnel," says David Van Amburg, ACSI managing director, adding that crowded airplanes also contribute to the perception of low quality.

Airlines have partially compensated for personnel cuts by adding airport kiosks and enabling passengers to book online, Van Amburg says. But he notes that airlines generally have less control over their operating environment than other industries. Although the federal government oversees airport security and air traffic control, "You assume the entire experience is somehow connected with the airline you're flying," he says.

David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, says personnel cuts have been largely proportionate to reductions in the number of flights. Nevertheless, delays are increasing because the air traffic control system handles far more corporate aircraft, he says.

In 1970, the nation's fleet included 2,500 commercial aircraft and 1,700 corporate aircraft; now, there are 8,500 commercial aircraft and 17,000 corporate aircraft, Castelveter says. "That causes delays, and when there are delays, customers are unhappy," he says. "Delays lead to missed connections, cancellations and mishandled baggage."