Do You Get More Satisfaction From Cheap Airlines Than Legacy Carriers Because You Expect Less?

When it comes to being satisfied with our flying experiences, it turns out we’d rather opt for low-cost carriers like JetBlue, over old legacy airlines like US Airways, according to a new study that rated customer satisfaction.

The JD Power & Associates 2012 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, released today. More than 13,500 respondents rated airlines on a wide variety of areas, including cost and fees, in-flight services; boarding/deplaning/baggage; flight crew; aircraft; check-in; and reservations, reports the Los Angeles Times. Carriers were rated within their own categories.

On a scale of 1,000 points, low-cost carriers (JetBlue, Southwest, WestJet, Air Tran and Frontier) averaged 754 and the legacy carriers (Alaska, Air Canada, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways) 681.

But at 694, even though Frontier was in last place among low-cost carriers, it still beat Alaska Airlines’ 678 first-place spot among legacy lines.

Overall satisfaction so far in 2012 is down a bit from last year, perhaps because of increasing baggage fees and other new expenses. Many low-cost airlines don’t charge for the first checked bag, whereas the legacy lines often do.

Low satisfaction could be because of the services legacy airlines used to offer and the subsequent expectations of consumers. Hey, if you’re buying a cheap ticket, you know what you’re getting, or at least can understand a bit better if service is less than par. For example, arlines used to offer in-flight meals, but no one flying Southwest is going to expect that for free.

Satisfaction with low-cost carriers outpaces legacy counterparts [Los Angeles Times]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Cat says:

    I get more satisfaction because I get what I expect, which is actually more than the big airlines give me. (Anyone remember free checked luggage?)

    • erich5248 says:

      I was actually wondering a moment ago when free checked luggage went away… it was obviously so long ago that I don’t remember when.

      I love Southwest. I’m so glad that they beat United in the battle to build an international airport in Houston.

      • jeb says:

        Late 2008 or early 2009. I remember having one free checked bag in May of 2008, but not June of 2009.

  2. yellowdog says:

    Perhaps, but using an example cited here – US Airways – the answer is “no.” My experiences flying US Airways have led me to actively avoid them when booking tickets for travel, even when their fares are equal to or lower than the low-cost airlines. US Airways has always been just a horrible experience from start to finish. Could just be me.

    • finbar says:

      I tried to avoid them too, then got stuck on one fo there planes because of a code share from another airline. Flying sucks.

    • HogwartsProfessor says:

      They actually have canceled flights on me twice. I haven’t had trouble with the others so far with that. All the airlines suck, IMO. The seats are too small and they have too many stupid fees.

      Now the cheapo airlines are starting to charge for carry-ons? Sorry, Allegiant, I”m not flying you any more. You can’t get me to L.A. at the time I need to be there, anyway. Cheaper, maybe, but not more convenient.

    • thomwithanh says:

      I fly US Airways regularly and apart from the mid-flight credit card hard sell I can’t say I have much to complain about.

  3. Blueskylaw says:

    Do you get more satisfaction from a Hyundai than a Ferrari because you expect less?

    • Coffee says:

      Your analogy is flawed.

      Do you get more satisfaction from a Hyundai than a more expensive Hyundai because you paid less for the same thing?


      • The Cupcake Nazi says:

        I think even that would be flawed. With a lot of these carriers, you actually get more for less, like a free checked bag. Pretty much no one gives you meals or anything else free now, so that’s all par.

        I would put it this way: Do you get more satisfaction from your Ford with a few extra goodies included than you get from a Lincoln rebadge of the same car that cost more but was missing a feature?

  4. FatLynn says:

    The low-cost carriers have designed their offerings largely for leisure travelers, while the legacy airlines still focus on business travelers. So, it’s not that the casual traveler expects less of the low-cost carriers, it’s that the low-cost carriers are actually better at meeting their needs.

  5. Guppy06 says:

    On the contrary, I get more from “cheap airlines” than I do from legacy airlines, in spite of paying less for them.

    With JetBlue, check-in is pretty painless, the one bag I was checking in was free, I can sit with my knees together, and I get satellite TV and radio in my seat. None of these statements were true when last I flew Delta.

    On my last trip, I only flew Delta because the premium I’d pay to fly Delta was still cheaper than the cost of an airport shuttle to an airport served by cheaper airlines. Today, I consider that decision a mistake.

    Let me put it this way: cheap airlines give me what legacy carriers only give to first class tickets.

  6. ctcatfur says:

    No. On the whole, they are just better all around–at least Southwest and Jetblue are. Haven’t flown Air Slam since the everglades incident.

  7. Lightweight says:

    I think the perception of the legacy carriers is that they’re now acting like low-cost carriers. If you’re going to have a lousy flying experience regardless of who you fly with (and, I have to admit, that is usually my expectation), why would you pay any more than you have to?

    BTW, I object to JetBlue still being referred to as a “low-cost” carrier. They may have began that way, but their tickets are now generally more expensive than similar routes on other carriers. I still fly with them because I like their service (at least, more so than that of most other airlines), but I usually pay a bit extra for it.

  8. vliam says:


    It’s the only explanation I can find for the cult of Southwest.

    • who? says:

      Southwest. Best on-time scores. Two free checked bags. No extra fees if I need to rebook. No pandemonium as everyone tries to crash the gate to get on the plane first, just a polite line where everyone has a number and gets on the plane in numerical order.

      Legacy carrier. Late, checked bag fees, $150 to change flights, and a crush of people at the gate.

    • Awesome McAwesomeness says:

      Southwest is fantastic. They have quick boarding, two free checked bags, great at being on time. Nothing to dislike about them

      • aerodawg says:

        Fly to BFE airports. No international flights. No real perks for frequent flyers. Nothing but coach. Lots of things to dislike if you’re doing anything BUT leisure travel….

        • Reno Raines says:

          If you aren’t flying International what does it matter? What BFE airports do they fly to?

        • YouDidWhatNow? says:

          …so, Minneapolis, LaGuardia, Philadelphia, Dulles, Reagan, Atlanta, Orlando, Newark, Logan, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Louisville, New Orleans, St. Louis, Denver, Phoenix, San Diego, LAX, Las Vegas, San Jose, San Francicso, Portland, Seattle…those are all BFE airports?

          Does SW service some smaller airports? Sure. You know who services more little airports than SW? All of the “major” carriers.

        • OutPastPluto says:

          Southwest is a great airline for commuting. Before all of the 911 nonsense, it was quite literally like getting on a bus.

          If you want something better, chances are likely that the legacy carriers aren’t going to provide it either. That’s why they’re really hurting. The serious business and luxury passengers have started to flee to alternatives.

          However, the underlying problem here is the notion that you have to be in “upper class” to be treated like a human being.

      • HogwartsProfessor says:

        Except they won’t come to my airport because it’s “too small a market,” so we’re stuck with legacy airlines and Allegiant. I would trade Allegiant for Southwest.

      • thomwithanh says:

        Southwest doesn’t fly out of my current hometown airport, but I’ve been on them a few times. I’m not a fan of the lack of assigned seating, but besides that they’ve impressed my time and time again.

    • Dagny Taggart says:

      I am convinced that people who trash or joke about Southwest (I am talking to you, Jay Leno), have never actually flown it. Their planes are newer, their people are nicer, they are usually cheaper, and they fly nearly everywhere I want to go (domestically, at least).

      I had some co-workers ridicule me and accuse me of “slumming” because we were all flying back to Chicago from a business trip at the same time, and I chose to fly into Midway on Southwest, while the rest of them booked a flight to O’Hare on a legacy. Both flights were schedule to depart within ten minutes of each other, but the legacy flight was delayed with mechanical issues. I called one of them when I landed in Chicago. They were still in the terminal in Philadelphia. So much for “percieved” satisfaction.

    • OutPastPluto says:

      It seems like EVERY time I fly AA that there is some issue with the aircraft.

      Never encountered that with with Southwest. They are a bus service and they know it. Their lack of pretense makes them better able to get the basics right.

      The “Jet Set” age is gone. Time for the dinosaurs to evolve.

  9. DogiiKurugaa says:

    Wow, talk about a double fail. The LA times miscited the numbers for the average legacy carrier and then Consumerist cited the incorrect numbers in their article citing the LA Times article.

    • Kuchen says:

      I was wondering how the average score for legacy carriers could be higher than the highest-ranked legacy carrier. That explains it.

  10. BelleSade says:

    I get more satisfaction from cheaper airlines because I’ve actually found the services to be better… my last Jetblue flight (NY to Puerto Rico), the flight attendants were excellent, very nice and funny and efficient. The same route, on a American Airlines flight, I go to the bathroom to find the flight attendants talking crap about Puerto Ricans. Yay.

  11. j2.718ff says:

    Ignoring price, I’ve been equally satisfied with all airlines that I’ve flown (except RyanAir, but they’re special, and I’ve never flown on Spirit). The reason I might be less satisfied with a “Legacy” airline is that they tend to cost more, and don’t offer any better of an experience.

  12. Blueskylaw says:

    How is it flawed? Either JetBlue or US Airways can take you to California let’s say, one being more expensive than the other. A Hyundai or Ferrari can both take you to the corner store, but one will cost you more than the other. The question is, are you willing to pay for the “bells and whistles”?

    • Blueskylaw says:

      Sorry, meant to be a response to Coffee – offer me, Coffee.

      • Coffee says:

        I was just pointing out (as someone elucidated in response to my comment) that there really aren’t even bells and whistles with the legacy carriers anymore. If anything, it feels like you’re getting older, shittier airplanes, higher prices (especially if you’re checking luggage), and more delays.

  13. BeerFox says:

    I think the budget carriers just plain provide better service where it matters. I could care less if a ‘legacy’ airline offers 10 types of overpriced snack-box, has an elite premiere status that lets you stand in a shorter line, and provides the latest in-flight movies. What I want is to get from point A to point B with minimal hassle, and without being held upside-down by the ankles and shaken for spare change. It’s just icing that the budget carriers seem to provide smoother service with less hassle.

    Case in point, my latest experience with US Airways. I was part of a group of 7, including my sister and her 3-year-old daughter. The tickets were purchased with everyone seated together. Once the tickets were non-refundable, US Airways broke up the party, placing everyone in a middle seat. They were happy to then inform my sister that if she didn’t want her daughter sitting between two strangers, they’d sell her an aisle or window seat for an additional $30. Per leg.

    Then, once airborne, we were treated to a 10-minute (not kidding) sales pitch from the captain about how much more epically awesome our lives would be if we signed up for a US Airways credit card.

    • UCLAri: Allergy Sufferer says:

      If you fly a lot, status is a wonderful thing. Especially on international or cross-country flights.

  14. UCLAri: Allergy Sufferer says:

    I increasingly realize that as a frequent flier, legacy airlines can actually be great: once you get status, you’re better off IMO with AA or Delta than you are with Southwest. Especially if you fly internationally a fair bit.

    But as an occasional flier, SW or JetBlue seem to be better experiences.

    Also, as someone who used to fly 50K+ miles a year, I found that the experiences were also in large part dependent upon the airport and terminal at the airport. Delta in Atlanta? Usually great. Delta at JFK? MEH.

    • Guppy06 says:

      JetBlue in JFK trumps Delta in Atlanta, in my experience.

      • UCLAri: Allergy Sufferer says:

        Yeah, but Delta in Asia and Europe trumps JetBlue in… not abroad.

        If I didn’t fly internationally, believe me, I would leave the legacy carriers behind. But I do, so such is life.

  15. Cooneymike says:

    I didn’t realize it was possible to expect less from many of these airlines, well, except for the not crashing part.

    • ScandalMgr says:

      You’ll be thrilled when the FAA certification services goes to the private, low-bid contractor then

  16. gman863 says:

    Strip away the frills and air travel is nothing more than renting a seat to get from point “A” to point “B”.

    As Southwest grew (despite being faught at every turn by legacy carriers), many travelers realized that the $50-$100 they saved equaled the cost of eating at a fancy restaurant – as such, it was worth noshing on a bag of peanuts in flight and getting a much better meal later.

    The other selling point that Southwest earns loyalty on is quick turnaround times at the gate. Cattle-call seating may be considered tacky by some, but it cuts time at the gate to about half that wasted by legacy carriers using the pomp-and-circumstance method of having special boarding for frequent flyers and first/business class passengers. Since they turn their planes faster, Southwest has a far better on-time record than most (if not all) legacy carriers.

    • sponica says:

      and the boarding isn’t as cattle call as it used to be…it used to be just class A, class B, and class C (and so on and so forth), now with online check in you’re given a letter and a number, and you stand in that part of the line…rather than the massive onslaught to get on the plane first when you have a ticketed seat (i understand it’s really a race to get the overhead bin above your seat, but it’s not like your seat won’t be there)

  17. crazydavythe1st says:

    I think so. Alaska Airlines is absolutely, hands down better than Frontier.

    Put another way – people seem to hate the special treatment that frequent fliers get and actually, at some level, love the idea that the most frequent Southwest/Frontier/etc. fliers are treated almost the same as them. Not a frequent flier, by the way, but I do recognize flying a legacy sometimes *is* cheaper than flying a discount carrier.

  18. Vox Republica says:

    I understand that you’re linking to an original article (that is itself quoting the JD Power survey), but I noticed a bit of… inconsistency that leads me to question the quality and integrity of the writing on this site (a first to be sure). Specifically, it’s this line:

    “On a scale of 1,000 points, low-cost carriers (JetBlue, Southwest, WestJet, Air Tran and Frontier) averaged 754 and the legacy carriers (Alaska, Air Canada, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways) 681.”

    …which is followed up with:

    “But at 694, even though Frontier was in last place among low-cost carriers, it still beat Alaska Airlines’ 678 first-place spot among legacy lines.”

    Mathematically, that’s impossible; if 678 is the highest score the legacy airlines got, then there is no way their average was 681. So I clicked through to the original piece… and that error was repeated there. In fact, the article itself was basically lifted section-by-section with cursory word replacement/sentence inversion. Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. I understand this isn’t a scholarly blog, but if this was handed in as an assignment, be it work or school, it’d be rightly flagged as plagiarism—in addition to being factually wrong.

    • Coffee says:

      You’re just confused because they rate the airlines on a scale of one to popcorn, where each number’s meaning vacillates dramatically, depending on which word it corresponds to in the Necronomicon.

  19. Sad Sam says:

    I seek out SW for flights. I don’t expect less and I actually seem to get more.

    The price is generally comparable or cheaper. I have more flexibility if I have to cancel, I can get a credit, the change flight fee is normally less too. I don’t have to pay for a particular seat, I don’t have to pay for checked luggage (that is a big upgrade compared to the legacy carriers) which means that there is more space on the plane, people are not fighting over cabin space and I’m not getting bonked in the head by a huge roller bag someone doesn’t want to check. And last time I flew Delta, they delayed my bag and I found out they don’t refund the checked bag fee even if you have to come back to the airport three hours later to pick up your bag. How does that make any sense.

    Food and drink is basically the same on SW vs. Delta or US Airways.

  20. giax says:

    No, I don’t fly with cheapo airlines. Any more. I expect the worst, and have usually got the worst from them. The last “free” (just pay the taxes and “convenience” for paying online etc) flights I had from Ryanair cost me 70 euros = about $ 100, and that not only was just Cork-Dublin return, but I also discarded the return ticket, since it would have cost more to have 2 kg/4 lb overweight than to buy a bus ticket to Cork. I bought the bus ticket to Cork on my way back and saved.

  21. AllanG54 says:

    I find that Delta is rarely more than Jet Blue for my domestic flights so I don’t know how low cost “low cost” airlines really are. That being said, I don’t expect anything but my cookies and coffee so I’m never upset.

  22. yankinwaoz says:

    From my experience, the legacy airlines are worse than the budget airlines. So…. what are you getting for your extra dollars? Nothing. You get dinged for your luggage. You get treated like crap.

    The FA’s are SWA are paid more than the legacy airlines, and probably treated better by the airlines. The attitude shows. The FA’s on United and Delta are angry, fed up, and it shows. They get their pay end benefits cut more and more. They have to enforce stupid policies from management. They have to deal with ticked off customers who are in sour moods thanks to the TSA and other angry employees.

    Plus, you still have to deal with the inept TSA goons which just ends up making the experience miserable no matter who you fly with. That alone make the modern flying experience nothing more than a gauntlet of abuse and humiliation from both the TSA, the airport, and the airlines.

    I do love SWA. They don’t pretend to be more than they are. And what they do, they do well. They don’t play games with me, and try to nickle and dime me to death. I really appreciate that. I fly them when I am able to for that reason.

  23. offtopic says:

    Not at all. I love Southwest because they have decided to focus on what is important to me. I do not miss that food is no longer served on flights because they never served it and I still do not have to pay to check a bag. It is great how quickly they get everyone on and off the plane and even when there are issues (I live in Philly, home of a terrible airport) the service they give is usually very good. They typically do it all with a smile on their faces.

    The legacy carriers are slow and cumbersome in everything that they do from loading up the plane to assisting you with a question not answered online. You notice the things that they now charge for or do not even offer so you feel like you are being nickle and dimed all of the time.

  24. offtopic says:

    Not at all. I love Southwest because they have decided to focus on what is important to me. I do not miss that food is no longer served on flights because they never served it and I still do not have to pay to check a bag. It is great how quickly they get everyone on and off the plane and even when there are issues (I live in Philly, home of a terrible airport) the service they give is usually very good. They typically do it all with a smile on their faces.

    The legacy carriers are slow and cumbersome in everything that they do from loading up the plane to assisting you with a question not answered online. You notice the things that they now charge for or do not even offer so you feel like you are being nickle and dimed all of the time.

  25. twritersf says:

    Actually, other than no more meals (which the “legacy” airlines no longer provide either), just about everything’s better on at least some of the “budget” airlines, specifically JetBlue, Virgin, and Southwest. The planes are more comfortable, the service is better, the people are more friendly, the lines are shorter when I have to check a bag, the fares (mostly) reflect the true cost and aren’t bolstered by added dishonest fees, and the flights are more often on time. The “budget” airlines simply don’t waste their resources on bloated middle and upper management and their salaries and instead focus on what’s important: getting people where they need or want to go with a minimum of fuss.

    The last time I flew a “legacy” airline–and this was quite a few years ago now–I was on the way home from a family visit from BOS to SFO on United. We were all settled in at the gate, all the passengers were on board and the plane was buttoned up. I found my seat would not stay up; it was broken. I pressed the button to call the flight attendant, explained the situation (I wouldn’t be able to put my seat back all the way up on takeoff because every time I tried to sit normally, the seat just fell back), and asked if I could have an empty aisle seat a few rows forward. The reply from the flight attendant, in a very haughty tone: “That seat is Economy Plus!, and she led me to a seat in the back row. My “compensation” for being assigned a broken seat. Needless to say, it’s “service” like that that keeps me from ever flying United (or any “legacy” airline) ever again unless I have no other choice.

  26. Donathius says:

    I fly Southwest whenever possible as they have never failed to impress me. I’ve had to call them a few times over silly little things and I’ve never had an issue that wasn’t resolved quickly and very nicely (had one phone agent who’s attitude was so positive it was hard not to laugh). I’ve even had flight attendants offer to buy me dinner when I was going to be stuck on a plane for quite a while with no access to food (due to the plane making 2 stops on its way to my destination).

    They consistently give me the best service, and their employees seem to genuinely enjoy their jobs, and they really go the extra mile to make their customers happy.

  27. bwcbwc says:

    I note that they didn’t include Spirit among the low-cost carriers. Would have brought the average down. Most of the low-cost carriers have managed to continue providing legacy-style service (free checked bag, cabin service) while holding their base fares. Legacy carriers (and SPirit) have become addicted to the add-on fees, which hide the true cost of a ticket.

  28. YouDidWhatNow? says:

    I would hazard to guess that people are less satisfied with the “big” carriers than the low-cost carriers for the simple fact that the low-cost carriers cost less…and frequently give you more. I don’t see how as there’s any magic to it.

    If Southwest goes where you want to go, for $100 less in ticket cost than, say, United, and you can check your luggage for free…just exactly what rationale would there be for even thinking that customers on United would be happier about their trip than the SW customers?

    It’s kind of like publishing a study titled “People tend to hate those who don’t punch them in the face less than those that do.”

  29. Trojan69 says:

    The smaller airlines manage a smaller fleet with fewer routes. The potential for hiccups that can paralyze an entire system is far less than that of the legacies.

    And yes, expectation has everything to do with measuring satisfaction. If I have a McDonalds experience at Chez Fifi, there will be heck to pay.

  30. NHpurple says:

    I love that I can change a flight on Southwest without a fee. I agree that the cattle call of legacy airlines are worse than standing in your slot for Southwest. Had a great experience with Southwest flying from California to MHT, I was on a flight that had 2 stops, Arizona and Chicago and joked with the attendant about ordering a pizza in Chicago. She asked me if I wanted to get off the plane and grab something to eat and I could get back on no problem. Would I get that from United?
    I flew Delta from Boston to London and ended up at the walk-in clinic for an inflamed sciatica due to the lack of leg room due to economy seating. (I guess I should have paid the extra $75) on the way home I was able to get my seat changed from a customer service person at the airport, but not at the ticket counter. Too many fees to fly on the legacy airlines. Give me the straightforward, no bag fees, no fee to change flights and happier flight attendants of SouthWest