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Mary Mazzoni headshot

3p Weekend: United Can Learn From These Airlines About Customer Service

By Mary Mazzoni

With a busy week behind you and the weekend within reach, there’s no shame in taking things a bit easy on Friday afternoon. With this in mind, every Friday TriplePundit will give you a fun, easy read on a topic you care about. So, take a break from those endless email threads, and spend five minutes catching up on the latest trends in sustainability and business.

United Airlines is still dealing with a massive public-relations nightmare after a video of security staff violently removing a senior citizen from a flight at Chicago’s O’Hare international airport went viral.

David Dao, a 69-year-old physician from Kentucky, sustained a concussion and broken front teeth during the ordeal and plans to sue the airline. United is also facing boycotts from Chinese passengers who object to the mistreatment of the Chinese-American grandfather.

Frequent travelers routinely complain of airline-related indignities -- from bloated baggage fees, to abrupt cancellations, to odd security measures such as confiscated breast milk. But the horrific experience Dao endured goes above and beyond. And after United came under fire again later this week for removing a couple bound for a destination wedding from a flight over a seat dispute, it's clear the airline hasn't learned its lesson.

For a few pointers on how to treat customers well (beyond, you know, not physically assaulting them), United can look to some of its peers in the North American airline sector.

To find the stand-outs, we looked at the 2016 customer satisfaction rankings from J.D. Power and Associates and the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which rank only North American carriers. We also incorporated lists from Skytrax and TripAdvisor, which rank North American airlines alongside their international competitors. The winners are also long-running favorites among the TriplePundit crew.

So, what makes them so great? Let's take a closer look.

1. JetBlue Airways

Despite being a budget carrier, JetBlue consistently dominates customer service rankings. It topped the American Customer Satisfaction (ACS) Index yet again in 2016, beating out all of the full-price carriers.

Although J.D. Power ranks budget and traditional carriers separately, JetBlue's score beat out the highest-ranking traditional carrier (Alaska Airlines) by 40 points out of a possible 1,000. And on a 2017 list generated by TripAdvisor, JetBlue ranked No. 4 out of both domestic and international carriers. Not bad for an airline best known for its rock-bottom deals.

Both the ACS and J.D. Power lists poll customers on categories such as cost and fees, in-flight services, flight crew friendliness, and ease of check-in.

JetBlue obviously blows it away in the cost category -- at least from its hub cites. But its in-flight services are what put it over the top: The carrier offers flights to more than 90 destinations with free in-flight entertainment and Wi-Fi, spacious leg room and, yes, a small bag of snacks served with a smile. It's also no slouch when it comes to sustainability.

2. Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines ranked highest on J.D. Power's list of traditional carriers, earning a 751 out of 1,000. It also ranked No. 3 on the ACS list and No. 9 on the domestic-international TripAdvisor ranking. And it's not hard to see why.

Alaska is known for its friendly staff and sleek aircraft. Even coach passengers can enjoy a respectable amount of legroom and power outlets at their seat on most flights. Alaska Beyond Entertainment offers free shows streaming on your own device, as well as access to the latest pay-per-view shows and movies.

On international flights (or any flight if you're riding in premium class), passengers enjoy surprisingly tasty meals concocted by three-time James Beard award winner Tom Douglas of Seattle. Even if you're purchasing a meal on a domestic flight, the prices are surprisingly reasonable: between $7 and $8 for a hot plate of food, which is about what you'd pay for a bag of Chex Mix on most airlines.

Oh, and if you're a sustainability fan, Alaska is testing out biofuels, too.

3. Southwest Airlines

Southwest came in second on both the J.D. Power and ACS rankings -- and it's improving year over year.

The airline is known for its good deals, but it's also steadily improving both customer service and sustainability. After upcycling a staggering 43 acres of airline interiors into consumer products, Southwest announced its new Evolve interior cabin -- which emphasizes cost efficiency, comfort and sustainability.

The airline's flight crews also rank consistently for top-notch customer service. And passengers can also snag competitively-priced Wi-Fi ($8 for the day, compared to $15 or more for most carriers) and, yep, that free bag of peanuts.

4. Delta Airlines

Delta Airlines came in second place in the J.D. Power rankings and ranked a respectable sixth on the ACS list.

While some travelers complain of delays associated with Delta, they're rare occurrences when traveling in and out of its hub cities. And once you're on board, it's easy to see why the airline still beats out its peers.

The flight crew is happy to offer any passenger a pillow and blanket on all flights. (This really shouldn't be something to brag about, but try asking for it on most American carriers.) Passengers can also kick back with Delta Studio in-flight entertainment on their seat backs or their own device, and snag a pair of complementary headphones if theirs were left behind (again).

On most flights, Delta offers a small bag of snacks in coach class. But earlier this year, it opted to start serving free meals in the main cabin on some of its longest domestic flights. These include popular transcontinental routes between New York and San Francisco or Los Angeles.

5. Hawaiian Airlines

Hawaiian Airlines wasn't ranked by J.D. Power or ACS. But it's a perennial favorite of 3p Editor in Chief Jen Boynton, whose mother lived in Hawaii for years. And it was honored for best airline staff in North America in the 2016 Skytrax World Airline Awards, held annually at the famed Farnborough Airshow.

That cheery customer service reputation aligns with Boynton's personal experiences. "The flight attendants all embody the aloha spirit," she said simply.

Hawaiian also offers complimentary meals and cocktails in the main cabin. And kiss that grey chicken and two-dollar wine goodbye. Meals are prepared in consultation with renowned Hawaiian chef Chai Chaowasaree. And Hawaii's first master sommelier, Chuck Furuya, selects its Hawaii-made spirits and wines.

If passengers are bored on the flight, they can relax with an in-flight entertainment tablet -- provided by the airline -- or browse the duty-free shops from their seat.

Image courtesy of JetBlue (press use only) 

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni