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JetBlue, Southwest, Virgin America get top customer-service marks

John Decker / AP

Virgin America was one of three U.S. airlines -- none of them legacy carriers -- to be honored as a Customer Service Champion by J.D. Power.

There’s never a shortage of complaints about airlines, but here is some positive news for a change: A new report is singling out carriers that — gasp! — actually get good reviews from travelers.

JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and Virgin America are among the 50 companies dubbed “2012 Customer Service Champions” in a J.D. Power and Associates report released on Wednesday.

The list is based on customer opinions of more than 800 companies in 20-plus industries, collected by J.D. Power in 2011. The top 5 percent of companies received the champion designation.

In an age of ever growing air travel frustrations, why did these airlines make the cut?

“Their people are clear differentiators. They’re courteous, they’re friendly, and they’re easy to get along with,” said Gina Pingitore, chief research officer at J.D. Power and Associates, noting that employees at JetBlue and Southwest are particularly well trained to ensure a good experience for travelers.

“Both of those brands really do understand that travel isn’t easy, so they actually go above and beyond to try to be the buffer between that stressful travel experience and the experience that they provide,” she said.

She also praised the staff at Virgin America and that carrier’s many amenities, including Internet access on every flight.

Anne Banas, executive editor at SmarterTravel.com, said she wasn’t surprised “one bit” by the selections. JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America consistently come out on top in her website’s readers and editors choice awards, she added.

Extra fees are one of the biggest gripes that fliers have with airlines, so the fact that Southwest doesn’t charge for the first or second checked bag and JetBlue doesn’t charge for the first goes a long way in terms of customer satisfaction, Banas noted.

Then, there’s the comfort and friendliness factor.

“Airlines like JetBlue and Virgin America provide a customer experience that is so far above and beyond what the other airlines are giving economy passengers,” Banas said. “You travel on United or Delta, it’s really bare bones. You basically get a seat and there’s not a lot extra.” 

In fact, no legacy carriers made the 2012 Customer Service Champions list, something that Pingitore attributed to their “spotty service” and not devoting enough time and resources to ensure their employees and services are truly customer friendly.

Banas noted that many legacy carriers also focus on pleasing their lucrative business travelers, neglecting the passengers in the main cabin in the process.

“They’re paying customers, too, and if you want people to be brand loyal you have to treat them like human beings. They call it cattle car for a reason. People are crammed into seats, they’re shrinking the seat pitch and width, it’s so incredibly uncomfortable,” Banas said. “They’re not even offering people basic services, and that’s going to eventually hurt them because people are going to want to travel on the other airlines that are offering a better experience.”

This is the second time that JetBlue and Southwest have made the list of Customer Service Champions since J.D. Power and Associates began releasing the report two years ago, Pingitore said.

Other travel industry companies making the cut this year include ACE Rent a Car, Drury Inn & Suites, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Hampton Hotels, Hotel Indigo and The Ritz-Carlton.

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