JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines remain America’s favorite airlines for customer service, according to a new survey.

Hilton edged out the competition for first place in the hotel category, with Marriott and Hyatt following close behind in second and third, respectively.

Airlines, hotels and travel companies don’t get a lot of love from consumers, but the results of the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) survey suggest industry leaders may be keeping customers happier than you might expect — at least, in some cases.

Airline rankings

Rank Airline ACSI Score
1 JetBlue 80
2 Southwest 80
3 Alaska 77
4 All others 74
5 American 72
6 Delta 71
7 United 68
8 Frontier 66
9 Allegiant 65
10 Spirit 62

Are airlines really offering better service?

Despite an increase in official complaints about airlines to the Department of Transportation in 2015, airlines overall have managed to improve their customer service scores in the last year. Low fuel prices and massive fee revenue have ignited skyrocketing profits.

ACSI data suggests that the legacy carriers may finally be investing some of that money back into the passenger experience, offering “free” snacks in economy class and more in-flight entertainment options through apps and Wi-Fi. Both American and United recently reinstated snacks in economy. The third legacy carrier, Delta Air Lines, recently abandoned fees for making phone reservations, to the great surprise — and delight — of passengers everywhere. It may be too soon to say what impact this major decision will have on customer service scores for Delta, whose score remains unchanged from last year.

The survey takes into consideration customer perceptions about how well airlines meet or exceed their expectations about customer service, as well as perceived value. Passengers who choose ultra-low-cost airlines are primarily leisure travelers interested in savings. Despite the pay-for-everything business model of Frontier, Allegiant and Spirit, these customers remain relatively content about their experience, where nabbing a great deal — not brand loyalty — drives their choice of airline.

Where the airlines are unwilling to improve are the physical constraints placed on passengers. With flights filled to capacity and legroom at an all-time low, airlines must find other ways to appease customers.

“Further tweaks to in-flight services along the lines of food and beverages and entertainment should help airlines reach higher levels of customer satisfaction,” says ACSI managing director David VanAmburg. “Overall comfort is no doubt an easier element to improve for hotels than it is for airlines, as it is unlikely airlines will reverse the trend of adding more seats in a fixed amount of space.”

The confident complaint

The survey also considers customer complaints and loyalty. Airline and hotel loyalty programs have suffered of late, with consumers reporting programs make it increasingly difficult to redeem rewards. VanAmburg sees loyalty programs as one potential area for improvement in customer satisfaction, as travelers perceive programs have been “watered down” or otherwise made more difficult to use. If companies reverse this trend, they could also reverse the “measure of displeasure” reported by travelers.

The survey shows that business travelers are the most satisfied segment of travelers, but also the group which complains the most. The reason? “ACSI data shows that airlines tend to do a better job of handling business travelers’ complaints, focusing more attention on that lucrative customer segment,” says VanAmburg. “ As such, business travelers themselves know their value to the airlines and are more likely to complain because they are more confident that their issues are more likely to be resolved satisfactorily.”

Looking to hotels, travelers are generally pleased with certain aspects of the hotel experience, including ease of making reservations and helpfulness of staff. However, consumers are unhappy with loyalty programs and on-site amenities, such as pools, fitness centers, business centers and food quality. Top performing hotels are in the upscale market, with little change over last year. Unsurprisingly, the lowest-scoring hotels are in the economy segment, with Motel 6 holding the last spot for the last several years.

Hotel rankings

Rank Hotel ACSI Score
1 Hilton 81
2 Marriott 80
3 Hyatt 79
4 Starwood 78
5 InterContinental 76
6 Best Western 75
7 La Quinta 75
8 Choice 74
9 Wyndham 70
10 Motel 6 65

As with the airline industry, business travelers tend to return to the same hotel brand again and again, making them the most sought-after customer for the hotel industry. Hotels tend to work harder to keep these customers happier than leisure travelers, although both business and leisure travelers report similar hotel satisfaction scores.

Among online travel agencies, the consolidation of Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz in the last year means the market offerings have homogenized in a way that has little impact on customer satisfaction results in the ACSI survey. This year’s leader, however, is Priceline, which jumped to an overall score of 81, and eight percent increase over last year. The biggest competition for internet travel companies may be airline and hotel websites themselves, which continue to offer prices consistent with online travel agencies and cut out the middleman.

Money can buy (travel) happiness

Overall, business travelers appear to be the happiest across the board. Could it be that airlines and hotels are willing to do more for travelers who spend more money? Absolutely.

For the rest of us, for the time being, we will have to continue to make tough decisions weighing the costs and benefits of economy plus seating and fee-based services, and how happy those add-ons can make us. And when you’re disappointed, follow our recommendations for lodging complaints confidently. Sounds like that’s the best way to get results.

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