Inside the 2016 ACSI Travel Report

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) has just released it's 2016 Travel Report.

The report highlights customer satisfaction ratings for the airline, hotel, and internet travel site industries. I'm profiling the airline industry in this post because (1) I'm on a plane right now and (2) airlines are consistently lagging in customer satisfaction.

First, the good news. Overall satisfaction among major U.S. airlines is up 4.3 percent in 2016. The bad news is airlines as a whole are the 7th lowest ranked industry on the ACSI. Their overall rating is 72 out of 100 points.

Here's a look at some of the highlights from the report along with a few suggested solutions. You can also download the complete report from the ACSI website.

Image credit:  Shai Barzilay

Image credit: Shai Barzilay

What Drives Airlines Satisfaction?

There are a number of factors that jump out from the report. These are the top five:

#5 Business vs. Leisure

Business travelers gave the airlines an overall rating of 76 versus 72 for leisure travelers. This makes sense because business travelers tend to receive more frequent flyer perks that can make travel more comfortable. Business travelers also tend to be more experienced travelers, which allows them to better navigate their way through the travel experience.


#4 Loyalty Programs

The ACSI report identified loyalty programs as the 3rd lowest-rate aspect of passenger experience. So, it's no surprise that the top three airlines (Jet Blue, Southwest, and Alaska) on ACSI's list all have loyalty programs that are ranked in the top 5 by by U.S. News & World Report. (Alaska is #1.)


#3 In-Flight Experience

The two lowest-rated aspects of passenger experience were seat comfort and quality of in-flight services (beverages, food, movies, and music). Here again is where the customer service leaders excel. Jet Blue is known for having the most comfortable seats. Alaska has their acclaimed selection of in-flight food and beverages. Southwest airlines is known for comfortable seats and free snacks.


#2 Checked Baggage

Leisure travelers who paid to check a bag scored the airlines 8 points lower than leisure travelers who did not check a bag (67 vs. 75). This is a major challenge for airlines since baggage fees are widely unpopular. Anecdotally, I see a lot of leisure travelers who check bags struggling to understand additional fees for overweight or oversized bags.


#1 Complaint Handling

Airlines stink at handling complaints. The average ACSI score for a leisure traveler who filed a complaint is 52, which is 20 points lower than the overall average. Complaints are typically handled by a consumer affairs office that is primarily accessible via email. It often takes several weeks to receive a response in an era where the standard for email response time is just one hour. This creates a double-whammy where customers are angry at something and then become even angrier at the lack of a timely resolution.



There are a few things that airlines can do to improve their service ratings.

Education: Travel can be a confusing and stressful experience, especially for leisure travelers. Airlines themselves and airline employees can do a much better job of educating passengers on what to expect and helping them move smoothly through their trip. For example, airline employees might brush up on the right way to help passengers with those check-in kiosks.

Patience: I fly Alaska and Southwest fairly regularly along with a couple of other airlines. Alaska and Southwest gate agents and flight crew members stand out for their warmth, friendliness, and helpfulness. It takes a lot of patience to be that way with passengers, but they have it. Compare this to another airline where 75 percent of gate agents don't even say hello or smile as I board one of their planes.

Complaints: Airlines have to get better at resolving complaints ahead of time. On the frontlines, this means equipping more employees with the resources, tools, and authority to resolve more issues right away. Within consumer affairs offices, any airline that matches other industries by responding to complaints within a few hours (versus several days or weeks) will have a huge advantage.

Etiquette tips for airline passengers

I've been on the road a lot lately, which means a lot of time spent in airplanes. In a moment of deep reflection, prompted by the passenger next to me spilling over into my seat, the passenger in front of me putting his fingers on the back of his headrest (too near my face), and the passenger behind me resting his open newspaper on the top of my head, I realized why I'm often so grumpy at the end of my flight. 

There are many times when other passengers are literarlly assaulting our senses.

Something has to be done! 

I asked some of my friends to share some etiquette tips for airline passengers to follow. Thanks to John, Sally, Sardek, Grace, Nicole, Katherine, Amber, Paul, Michelle, Judy, Adriana, and David for sending me such a fantastic list!


  • Sweatpants - even the "fancy" ones are not appropriate attire. Especially because everyone knows you slept in them the night before and rolled out of bed to catch the flight.
  • Please cover up your really jacked up feet. It ruins peoples' appetite and is just all around uncool.


  • Bathe (sometime) before flying.
  • Bringing aboard stinky food is not very polite.
  • If your kid needs a diaper change then change it!!! No one wants to smell your kids crap the whole flight.
  • Don't take your shoes off if you feet smell.


  • Our team had a conversation about this exact topic just this morning. Top of list - loud mouths on phone. And, with internet now available on some flights, voice over calls while in flight. Keep conversation to people next to you, not the entire cabin.
  • No arguing with co-passengers; in your party or not.
  • If someone is sitting with their eyes closed like their trying to sleep, don't talk to them. 
  • If someone is wearing earphones then they are trying to tune out the world. Please don't tap them on the arm so you can share your story.


  • Keep your elbows INSIDE your seat boundaries. (And knees. Please.)
  • Keep carry-on stuff under the seat in front of you, not in front of the person sitting next to you.
  • If your hips are wide, please don't bump the heads of people who are sitting in the aisle seats with your wide bottom.
  • Along those same lines, when boarding, don't bump your wide bottom, carry-on, small child or anything else you might be carrying on the heads of each passenger as you go down the aisle -- some of those big purses hurt.
  • The person in the middle seat gets the arm rest! Just because the person is small does not mean you should wedge them in and take all arm rest space so they can't move.
  • Store your carry on above YOUR seat only, don't use up someone else's space because you carried on more than you should have.
  • (Don't bring) your entire bedding set with you. I don't want to touch your dirty pillowcase from your king sized pillow.


I didn't get any responses for this category. That's a good thing.

What etiquette tips would you add to the list?