Top Customer Ratings Go to ‘Low-Cost’ Airlines With Fewest Fees

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In the most recent passenger satisfaction survey from J.D. Power and Associates, the two top-rated airlines are JetBlue and Southwest. While both are considered low-cost carriers, compared to the mainstream they’re more generous with perks like free snacks and in-flight entertainment, and more reluctant to charge baggage fees. No wonder travelers like them so much.

According to the recently released J.D. Power North America Airline Satisfaction Study, overall passenger satisfaction is down slightly—unsurprising considering that fees and fares have risen at the same time perks have disappeared. For an explanation for the drop in across-the-board ratings, one needn’t look further than traditional carriers such as Continental, U.S. Airways, and American. Their ratings all decreased this year.

The product offered by low-cost carriers, by contrast, is looking better and better in the eyes of travelers. JetBlue is bragging, for good reason, that it’s been given top honors for customer satisfaction among North American airlines for the seventh straight year. Both JetBlue and Southwest Airlines, which came in second place for customer satisfaction, improved ratings this year. In fact, all five low-cost carriers included in the survey boosted their satisfaction scores, and the lowest-rated low-cost carrier (Frontier Airlines) received better overall ratings than the highest-scoring traditional carrier (Alaska Airlines).

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In the past, it was safe to assume that the “low-cost” label equated to fewer perks. Clearly, this isn’t the case anymore. (For that matter, “low-cost” carriers don’t always have the cheapest fares either.) Baggage fees are the most obvious sign of this. Whereas fees for checked baggage have become standard, the two top-rated carriers have the most generous checked baggage policies. JetBlue allows the first checked bag for free, and, as a longstanding advertising campaign harps on, Southwest lets passengers check two pieces of luggage at no charge.

Baggage fees are “a customer sore point,” according to J.D. Power’s study. Only 28% of travelers think that baggage fees are reasonable. Seven in ten passengers, meanwhile, believe that fees for priority boarding are reasonable. Ratings average 85 points lower among passengers who had to pay to check baggage.

JetBlue in particular is also generous with extras that once weren’t considered extras—but which have now taken on the role of surprising bonus perks. The airline offers unlimited snacks and beverages to all passengers for free. It has also kept a robust selection on in-flight entertainment free, with seatback screens offering 36 channels of DIRECTV and each passenger allowed to choose among 100 channels of complimentary XM Satellite Radio. Everybody sits in leather seats too.

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Part of the gulf in ratings between traditional and low-cost carriers may be due to passenger expectations. Paraphrasing J.D. Power’s Stuart Greif, the Wall Street Journal noted:

Discount airlines tend to do better because passengers have low expectations and are pleasantly surprised by the service, the staff attitude and, in the cases of JetBlue, Southwest, and WestJet, the lack of bag fees for the first piece of checked luggage. By contrast, he said, customers come to the traditional carriers expecting more and find perks being taken away.

Since fees have some impact on each airline’s ratings, it would have been interesting to see how satisfied customers have been with the nation’s most fee-crazed carrier, Spirit Airlines. Unfortunately, Spirit, which charges for everything from bottled water to carry-on bags, wasn’t included in the J.D. Power study.

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Clearly, travelers seem to prefer the “low-cost” experience as envisioned by JetBlue and Southwest, in which customers aren’t nickel-and-dimed with fees at every turn. It’s unclear, though, how they feel about Spirit’s low-cost model, in which a cheap initial price can become expensive overall once a dizzying array of fees is tacked on. It may not even really matter if consumers like this model; it’s proven to be remarkably profitable for Spirit, and so there’s little reason for the airline to switch to a system in which food, checked baggage, and other services are provided for free.

To some extent, it looks as if travelers are saying one thing (they like airlines best when they charge fewer fees) while doing another (booking flights aboard the carriers that charge dozens of fees). Because money talks, this is a scenario that, like it or not, points to more and more fees in the future.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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