Delta gets long-coveted top spot in J.D. Power airline ranking

April 27, 2021 Hartsfield-Jackson Airport: Delta Air Lines has turned a corner as it starts filling middle seats again May 1, 2021 and looks for a travel rebound this summer. Average airfares hit a 25-year low in 2020 as the number of travelers on U.S. airlines dropped dramatically because of the pandemic, according to a federal report. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport also had ranking changes in 2020. Guangzhou Bai Yun International Airport unseated the Atlanta airport for the first time in more than two decades, according to Airports Council International's preliminary world airport traffic rankings. Seven of the 10 busiest airports in the world in the pandemic year of 2020 were in China. However, Hartsfield-Jackson was the busiest  airport measured by flight counts in 2020, taking that title back from Chicago O'Hare. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
April 27, 2021 Hartsfield-Jackson Airport: Delta Air Lines has turned a corner as it starts filling middle seats again May 1, 2021 and looks for a travel rebound this summer. Average airfares hit a 25-year low in 2020 as the number of travelers on U.S. airlines dropped dramatically because of the pandemic, according to a federal report. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport also had ranking changes in 2020. Guangzhou Bai Yun International Airport unseated the Atlanta airport for the first time in more than two decades, according to Airports Council International's preliminary world airport traffic rankings. Seven of the 10 busiest airports in the world in the pandemic year of 2020 were in China. However, Hartsfield-Jackson was the busiest airport measured by flight counts in 2020, taking that title back from Chicago O'Hare. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

At long last, Delta Air Lines has taken the No. 1 spot in customer satisfaction in a closely watched annual analysis.

It’s the first time since 1995 that Delta has ranked highest in the J.D. Power North America Airline Satisfaction study. For years, the Atlanta-based airline listed that among its goals.

What the carrier’s executives may not have expected was that their long-coveted prize would come amid a pandemic that caused travel to drop 60% last year and led to billions of dollars in losses for the airline.

But Delta’s approach to handling customers during the COVID-19 pandemic — especially its policy of blocking middle seats through April 30 of this year, which set it apart from its competitors — helped the airline win favor among travelers.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian called it “”particularly meaningful that this recognition came during the most challenging year in our history.”

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The airline plans to “build on the trust earned during the pandemic,” Bastian said in a written statement.

Across airlines, while most people were steering clear of travel last year, those who did fly said their level of satisfaction was higher during the pandemic than before, according to the J.D. Power study. Average passenger satisfaction with airlines across the industry grew 27 points.

That’s partly because carriers — confronted with the steep drop in business and the complications of travel restrictions — adopted more flexible, customer-friendly policies, such as eliminating change fees.

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Empty middle seats “signaled airline concern for passengers,” according to the study. Delta improved its 2020 score, when it ranked No. 3, from 810 points out of 1,000 to a score of 860 in 2021.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, the second-largest carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, fell from 1st place last year to 2nd place this year with a score of 856.

While tens of thousands of customers filed complaints last year about problems getting refunds from airlines for canceled trips, the J.D. Power study surveyed people who actually flew recently. They found less crowded planes and airport terminals, with security lines often nonexistent.

While the pandemic increased anxiety about traveling for many people, it reduced typical frustrations, such as navigating the airport and sitting in cramped airplane cabins.

The study also cited “increased attentiveness of flight crews,” who had to deal with just a fraction of the usual number of passengers. Delta scored highest on passenger satisfaction with flight crews, in-flight service, the aircraft and baggage claim.

J.D. Power travel intelligence lead Michael Taylor said Delta “is doing the important things really well, especially in an extraordinarily challenging year.” Staying aware of passenger needs “will be a strategic advantage for airlines that want to set themselves apart” as travel recovers, according to Taylor.

Tim Mapes, Delta’s chief marketing & communications officer, said the airline continues to work on improving its service, with amenities like faster in-flight Wi-Fi, which will start rolling out this year.

Mapes acknowledged that, as travel recovers during the busy summer season, longer lines and other challenges will return. But, during the pandemic, Delta put passengers’ “safety and their health above profits” Mapes said, and the airline believes customers will remember that.

The J.D. Power study, conducted from August 2020 through March 2021, was based on responses from 2,309 passengers who had flown on major North American airlines within the previous month. It measured passenger satisfaction in eight categories, including aircraft, baggage, boarding, check-in, costs and fees, flight crew, in-flight services and reservations.

Last month, in the American Customer Satisfaction Index, Delta tied with Southwest for the No. 1 spot. And, earlier this month, the Airline Quality Rating released its rankings, with Southwest taking the top spot and Delta coming in third place.

J.D. Power 2021 North America Airline Satisfaction Study ranking

(Scores based on a 1,000-point scale)

1. Delta (860)

2. Southwest (856)

3. Alaska (850)

4. JetBlue (849)

5. United (810)

6. American (791)

7. Air Canada (759)

Source: J.D. Power

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