A quick quiz: When it comes to customer satisfaction, what institution do American consumers loath most? (A) Airlines. (B) the Internal Revenue Service. (C) Cable television providers. (D) Social networking sites.
If you guessed all four, you are correct. You win a no-expense-paid trip in economy class for an audit of your last 10 tax returns while sitting between a Twitter fanatic and a Times Warner cable telemarketer.
It comes as no surprise that airlines finished near the top of this dubious achievement list, compiled by the American Customer Satisfaction Index travel report.
The last United Airlines flight I took was aboard a plane so old there was a copy of the Saturday Evening Post in the seat pocket.
Dinner was the legendary snack box containing cheese spread which contained no discernible cheese, crackers and a piece of fruit for 10 bucks.
To ease the pain, I washed it down with a half-bottle of Chateau Screw Top cabernet ($8) which had been bottled the week before.
According to the survey, passengers appreciate that airlines are mishandling fewer bags, although that’s slicing the baloney a bit thick. Nearly 1.8 million pieces of luggage were lost, stolen, or damaged by major U.S. airlines in 2012 — just on domestic flights.
Believe it or not, that’s a significant decline over previous years, but it’s not because the industry has all of a sudden decided to become vigilant.
No, it’s because high luggage fees have resulted in more and more passengers using carry-on bags. Which will work until the airlines find a way to install coin-operated overhead bins.
The flight itself is making some passengers unhappy, with seat comfort and in-flight service particularly dissatisfying. Seat comfort scored 63 out of a possible 100 points, while in-flight service rated an index score of 67 points, according to the survey. Hardly breaking news.
According to the Wall Street Journal, “New Boeing 737-800s now being delivered to American Airlines have the same-size cabins as the existing 737-800s in American’s fleet. But the new planes have 12 more coach seats, pushing the total number of seats to 160. Delta Air Lines has also added 10 seats to its 737-800s, raising the total to the same 160. So has Continental Airlines.”
You can do the math.
So which airline do fliers like least? The answer is less than eyebrow-raising: the aforementioned United Airlines.
Its 2010 merger with Continental Airlines is likely one of the reasons, ACSI explained. “We’ve seen time and time again the negative impact mergers have on customer satisfaction,” Claes Fornell, ACSI founder, said in a statement, adding that American Airlines could also see slumping satisfaction as it combines operations with US Airways.
But that didn’t happen in United’s combination with Continental. While it ranked dead last, United rose two points, probably because Continental’s traditionally high customer satisfaction buoyed United’s traditionally lower score, the study said.
For the record, JetBlue and Southwest are the airlines most in favor.
Back on the ground, what does the ACSI survey say consumers like best in the way of goods and services?
At the top of the list is television and video players, credit unions, soft drinks, personal care and cleaning products, automobiles and light vehicles, full-service restaurants, breweries and athletic shoes.
Bringing up the rear are wireless telephone services, health insurance, Internet news and information, gasoline stations and hotels.
An eclectic list if I ever saw one.
If you take this survey at face value, you could presumably launch a successful political campaign by promising even larger flat-screen TVs, tastier soft drinks, gentler deodorant and stronger tile cleaner, sleeker automobiles, more restaurants where people serve you, a brewery on every corner and sneakers that will allow each and every one of us to run like the wind and play above the rim.
These seem to be the things Americans care about.
But lest we demean the nation’s consumers, another ACSI survey disclosed that the company Americans hate most is McDonald’s.
With some justification. A recent study conducted by the National Employment Law Project found that McDonald’s employees rely more on public assistance programs than any other large fast-food company, with an estimated $1.2 billion in costs to the public.
Making matters worse, McDonald’s advised some of its employees to sell their possessions to make up for holiday spending debt. Recently, the fast food chain’s hotline designated to help its workers live on their modest incomes encouraged employees to apply for food stamps.
But no such Dumpster diving for the chief executive of McDonald’s. He earns more than $9,200 an hour, which is at least 1,000 times the hourly wages of their sales associates, according to published reports.
Against that backdrop, the fast-food giant reported that sales in the United States continue to decline. Its first-quarter earnings fell well short of analysts’ expectations.
Maybe, just maybe, we Americans get it right.