By Chris Michaud
(Reuters) - U.S. consumers are more satisfied with airlines in recent years but the industry still gets relatively low marks, mainly due to the onboard experience, according to a new customer poll released on Tuesday.
The American Consumer Satisfaction Index, which surveys some 70,000 U.S. customers annually on more than 40 industries ranging from apparel and hospitals to banks and insurance, found only television and internet service providers ranked lower.
ACSI found that full service and fast food restaurants, hotels and shipping companies provided consumers with a better experience.
But ACSI said airlines were making progress, with a ranking of 69 on a 100-point scale, up three percent from 67 last year for their best marks in nearly two decades.
Discount airlines won the best grades, with JetBlue atop the list for a second straight year, up two percent to 83, followed by Southwest, which rose five percent to 81. Major airlines trailed far behind in the upper or low 60s.
"Airlines continue to improve service for business travelers," said survey founder and chairman Claes Fornell.
Certain aspects of air travel were rated far better than others, notably reservations and check-in, both of which can be done online, timeliness, baggage handling and crew courtesy.
But in-flight services and comfort scored low grades.
"Passengers reserve their harshest criticism for the principal part of the experience - the flight itself," the report said, including food and beverage service, entertainment and worst of all, seat comfort.
Fornell said he sees no evidence that the airlines are taking steps to improve.
"The cost structure for airlines - high fixed costs and large variations in fuel price - coupled with high price sensitivity for a large segment of the market, make it difficult to improve quality of service," he said.
"Also, as long as all airlines are bad, they will not be punished much by customer defections."
The report surveyed 8,963 customers of five industries from January 21 to March 17 and found that shipping services and full service and fast food restaurants fared much better.
The hotel industry's 77 rating was unchanged over the past three years, but the number remains an all-time high. The higher-priced chains were also the best rated, according to ACSI.
"Service, or the lack of it, does not differ much between discount airlines and others," Fornell explained. "For hotels, there is more of a difference. The luxury hotels have better amenities, and offer superior service across the board."
The Marriott chain saw the biggest gains, improving five percent from 78 to 82 for its first claim of the top position in five years. Hilton, unchanged from last year's 80, was second, while low-priced Wyndham, which includes Ramada, Days Inn and Super 8, placed last at 72, but up three percent from last year.
Like the airlines, hotels were considered best for reservations, check-in and staff courtesy, while amenities and food service quality ranked at the bottom.
Restaurants fared even better than hotels in the survey, coming with ratings of 80 for fast food and 81 for full service chains, with Olive Garden and Chili's seeing the biggest gains.
Among fast food restaurants, the world's biggest burger chain, McDonald's, had its best rating ever of 73 - but that still put it in last place, far behind leader Subway with 83 and rivals Wendy's and Burger King, 79 and 76 percent, respectively.
(Reporting by Chris Michaud, editing by Patricia Reaney and Phil Berlowitz)