Passenger satisfaction with air carriers in the U.S. improved slightly this year but not enough to pull airlines from the bottom of the list of most appreciated industries.
When it comes to customer satisfaction, airlines still rank below gas stations, the U.S. Postal Service and public utilities, according to a new report released Monday by the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index, based on interviews with more than 7,000 Americans.
At the top of the list are the makers of television and video players, credit unions and soft-drink producers. At the bottom are airlines, health insurance companies, subscription television services and Internet providers.
The study confirms what airline passengers have been saying lately: Seat comfort and in-flight service are key to making a flight enjoyable.
The study found that most elements of a flight — booking a flight, checking in, handling baggage and boarding — get ratings above 77 in a 100-point scale. Once passengers are seated, the ratings drop.
The two most despised part of flying are seat comfort (65 rating) and in-flight service (72).
"Up until boarding, passengers are reasonably satisfied with airlines but then the problems begin," the report said.
Despite the ratings, a spokeswoman for the airline industry said carriers have invested heavily in new planes, seats and entertainment systems.
"U.S. airlines continue to do a great job for their customers despite many circumstances beyond their control, including historically severe weather," said Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, the trade group for the nation's largest carriers.
Wider seats for Southwest Airlines
The newest seats on Southwest Airlines planes are expected to give passengers what they've been demanding: more breathing space.
The seats to be installed on Boeing 737-800 planes starting in 2016 will offer about half an inch of extra width on each seat, as well as a new "C-shaped" design to the bottom seat frame, replacing the old "L" shape, thus giving passengers a bit more room around the shins.
But Southwest wouldn't say how it was able to squeeze an extra half inch out of each seat without narrowing the aisle. The seat designer, Florida-based B/E Aerospace, isn't talking. Southwest confirms, however, that the armrest between the seats will be "streamlined."
"We see this as the future of Southwest Airline seats," said Southwest spokeswoman Thais Conway.
But the future won't be coming soon. Southwest won't be ripping out the old seats to replace them with the wider seats. Instead, the wider B/E Aerospace seats will be installed in the new 737-800 and 737-Max as they come on line to replace older Boeing models, from 2016 to 2024.
Hotels fret over electric bills
Hotels that want to offer their guests fast-charging stations to power up the electric cars of green-minded guests may worry about getting stuck with higher electric bills.
The Shore Hotel in Santa Monica, Calif. — which describes itself as an eco-chic hotel — says it has solved the problem by installing an energy storage system to go along with a fast-charging system that can power up an EV in about 30 minutes.
The storage system will stockpile energy during low electricity demand periods throughout the day so that electric vehicle owners can charge up without causing a surge in a hotel's electric bill.
"By flattening out the demand, we are saving the hotel money," said Vic Shao, chief executive of Green Charge Networks, which builds the storage system. He said the storage systems, which are the size of a small refrigerator, can save hotels thousands of dollars a month.
But other hotel owners say they are happy to pay higher electric bills if it means drawing in more guests.
"The goal is to bring people to your property," said Patricia Griffin, founder of the Green Hotels Association, a Houston group that promotes green policies for hotels. "These people are enthusiastic about the whole green issue so you want them to come."