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Product Reviews

The right fliers

As airlines tack on fees and cut frills, some carriers stand out

Southwest was the only airline to receive top marks cabin service. Southwest was the only airline to receive top marks cabin service. (Associated Press/ File)
Consumer Reports / July 17, 2011

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Comfort issues and excessive fees are sore points for air travelers, and are among the major reasons many are traveling less, according to Consumer Reports’ recent survey of almost 15,000 passengers.

Eight of the 10 major airlines that Consumer Reports readers rated received low scores for seat comfort. Several carriers also got low marks for other quality-of-flight measures including cabin-crew service, cleanliness, and in-flight entertainment.

Consumer Reports’ airline ratings were based on responses from nearly 15,000 readers who told the Consumer Reports National Research Center about their experiences on nearly 30,000 domestic round-trip flights from January 2010 to January 2011. Airlines were scored based on passengers’ responses to questions regarding overall satisfaction, check-in ease, cabin-crew service, cabin cleanliness, baggage handling, seating comfort, and in-flight entertainment. Consumer Reports also asked questions about charging additional fees.

Some carriers did rise above the rest. Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways topped the list with relatively high scores for overall satisfaction. Southwest was the only airline to receive top marks for check-in ease and cabin-crew service. Passengers also gave Southwest high grades for cabin cleanliness and baggage handling. However, the airline got middling scores for seat comfort.

JetBlue scored above average for seating comfort because it gives passengers more room than they’re accustomed to in this era of tightly packed planes. JetBlue was also the lone carrier in the ratings to earn top scores for in-flight entertainment. Its seatback TV screens offer passengers 36 channels.

At the other end of the list, the bottom-ranked US Airways occupies the same unenviable spot as it did in 2007, when Consumer Reports last assessed airlines. In addition to its low overall score, survey respondents gave it the worst marks of any airline for cabin crew service.

The proliferation of added fees at or after check-in by many carriers further contributes to passengers’ low opinion of today’s flying experience - and even to their decision of whether to fly at all. Forty percent of survey respondents who said they’re flying less these days gave increased fees as the major reason - far more than those who blamed flight delays, poor service, or other annoyances.

As with overall satisfaction, airlines differ widely in how likely they are to saddle travelers with extra fees. For example, 93 percent of the Southwest passengers surveyed had avoided all of the fees that Consumer Reports asked about. Far fewer travelers were as lucky with their experiences at Continental Airlines (57 percent), JetBlue Airways (56 percent), Delta Airlines (56 percent), American Airlines (55 percent), United Airlines (48 percent), US Airways (46 percent), Alaska Airlines (44 percent, Frontier Airlines (43 percent), and AirTran Airways (33 percent).

How to Land the Best Fare
Airfare prices have risen the past year, but you can still save money by taking a few simple steps:

■ Use social networks. Many airlines tweet deals. Two examples are @FrontierSale and @JetBlueCheeps, where Consumer Reports found a $10 one-way fare from San Francisco to Long Beach, Calif.

■ Sign up for promo codes. If you’re a member of an airline’s frequent flier program, you can often sign up for special promotion codes, which provide discounts from 10 to 50 percent.

■ Work the Web. More than 70 percent of respondents booked their own flights on an airline’s website. A smaller number, 55 percent, compared fares on other websites. For the best possible deals, cast that wider net. Start with websites that allow you to compare the deals from multiple airlines, such as Airfarewatchdog and Kayak.

■ Book early or late. You don’t need to book more than 90 days in advance. Booking about 21 days before your trip will usually get you a good fare.

■ Be flexible. Shifting dates by a day or two often allows you to nab a lower price. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays are generally the cheapest days to fly.

Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at consumerreports.org.