Oh what a time to be in the airline industry. Especially if you're Southwest Airlines. 

With the past year, the airline weathered intense scrutiny after a passenger, Jennifer Riordan, was partially sucked out of the window of a Southwest 737 airplane and killed. And just as the airline was regaining confidence, the Boeing 737 Max crisis came to the forefront. 

Southwest is by far the largest 737 Max customer. Even setting aside safety concerns and consumer skepticism, the plane's grounding has played more havoc with Southwest's schedule than other airlines.

But every time I find myself wondering if we're about to see a crack in the veneer of Southwest's enviable image, the airline seems to get some good news that rescues its brand.

Tied for first

This week was no different, with the release of the J.D. Power 2019 North America Airline Satisfaction Study.

Southwest was tied for number-1 in terms of overall satisfaction among low cost carriers with its competitor JetBlue. It's Southwest's third year at the top of the rankings, and while the tie might take away a bit of the luster, it's still incredibly good news.

The J.D. Power study is based on interviews with 5,966 passengers, who judged the airlines in seven categories: cost and fees; in-flight services; aircraft; boarding, deplaning, and baggage; flight crew; check-in; and reservations.

J.D. Power separates low cost carriers and traditional carriers into different groups, even though they're judged on the same scale. That distinction means Alaska Airlines sits at the top of the traditional carrier rankings, for the 12th year in a row.

All 10 together

I've combined the rankings below, including both low-cost and traditional carriers. 

  • JetBlue Airways, low-cost carrier, 817 points
  • Southwest Airlines, low-cost carrier, 817 points
  • Alaska Airlines, traditional carrier, 801 points
  • Delta Air Lines, traditional carrier, 788 points
  • American Airlines, traditional carrier, 764 points
  • WestJet, low-cost carrier, 758 points
  • Air Canada, traditional carrier, 729 points
  • United Airlines, traditional carrier, 723 points
  • Spirit Airlines, low-cost carrier, 711 points
  • Frontier Airlines, low-cost carrier, 702 points

Why Southwest ranks so high

Southwest had a big milestone earlier this year, when it started flying to Hawaii. There's no word on how many passengers surveyed were on that route, which I'm going to guess would yield a higher percentage of happy responses anyway.

But it really is remarkable when you think about the fact that Southwest has only a single class of seating, doesn't let you reserve a seat ahead of time, and doesn't even provide real meal service.

Passengers don't seem to penalize it for that. (In fact, some find the open seating to be a feature, not a bug.)

What really seems to give Southwest an edge however, has to do with the intangbles.

Judging by the stories that cross my desk almost every week since (like this one, this one, and this one), its crew are adept at manifesting that old Maya Angelou quote:

"People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

The one thing to worry about

If there's one thing for the airline to worry about however, it's this. 

The passengers in this survey were questioned between April 2018 and March 2019. So that means that while they were 100 percent within the time period after the accident that cost Riordan her life, they were also almost entirely polled before the 737 Max controversy.

So while Southwest ranked at the top of the list on airlines for passengers with families last year, and took home the top prize for U.S. airlines (and sixth among all airlines in the world) at TripAdvisor's Travelers' Choice Awards, you have to wonder:

With the ramifications of the 737 Max controversy still playing out, what will things look like for Southwest in these surveys a year from now? 

Published on: Jun 1, 2019
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