Airport car rental customer satisfaction falls

Nov. 14--As if air travelers didn't know it already, the entire experience -- from security checkpoints to aircraft boarding, flight delays, waiting for rental cars and returning them -- has become excruciating, according to customer surveys.

In its 2007 Rental Car Satisfaction Study that was released Tuesday, J.D. Power and Associates found overall satisfaction of airport car rental customers declined in 2007 from 2006. On a 1,000-point scale, satisfaction dropped from 767 last year to 750 in 2007.

St. Louis-based Enterprise Rent-A-Car ranked first in customer satisfaction in the survey for the fourth consecutive year, with a score of 777. Hertz ranked second with a score of 762. National, a unit of Enterprise subsidiary and Tulsa-based Vanguard Car Rental, ranked third with 754 points.

Tulsa-based Dollar Rent A Car ranked eighth of eight companies in the survey, with a score of 731. Thrifty Car Rental, also a unit of Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group Inc., ranked fifth with a score of 746.

The industry average score was 750, said Jim Gaz, senior director of travel and entertainment at Westlake Village, Calif.-based J.D. Power.

"The decline in customer

satisfaction with rental cars is indicative of a general decline in performance throughout the travel industry in 2007 -- from airports to airlines to hotels," Gaz said in a prepared statement.

"Rental car customers, in particular, are being faced with rising fuel prices and decreased availability of new rental vehicles as major automotive manufacturers have reduced their rental fleet sales," he said. "While the rental car industry faces its own specific challenges, customer satisfaction may also be influenced by the snowball effect from frustrations consumers are facing with the entire travel experience."

In its 12th year, the J.D. Power survey measures overall customer satisfaction with renting cars at airports by examining six factors: costs and fees; pick-up process; the rental car itself; return process; reservation process; and shuttle bus/van.

J.D. Power based its rental car satisfaction study on evaluations by 5,859 business and leisure travelers who rented a vehicle at an airport location between September 2006 and September 2007.

Enterprise scored highly in five of the six categories, Gaz said.

"In particular, Enterprise has widened the gap from its competition through strong performance in cost and fees and in the functionality of their Web site, as well as in the courtesy of their personnel," Gaz said. "These strengths could potentially benefit the two rental car companies recently acquired by Enterprise -- Alamo and National -- as Enterprise aligns these operations."

Enterprise spokeswoman Christy Conrad said the company actually has ranked first in the J.D. Power survey in eight of the last nine years.

"It speaks to the consistency and hard work of our employees," Conrad said in a telephone interview.

Fred Fleischner, spokesman for Dollar Thrifty, said the company may have ranked lower in the survey because it markets primarily to the leisure traveler.

"Those commenting on Dollar and Thrifty may be commenting strictly on market perception, and I say that because the ranking somewhat reflects our market share numbers as well," Fleischner said.

"It's true that by the time a customer comes to the rental counter, they may have stood in long lines at an airport, sat and waited on a tarmac, and maybe even lost their luggage on arrival. We're aware of that frustration coming to our counters, and we're doing everything we can to make that customer feel welcome and get them on their way to their final destination as quickly as possible."

J.D. Power, a market research, forecasting, training and customer satisfaction measurement firm, found the average reported time rental car customers wait while pricking up or returning their rental car typically exceeds the reported wait times incurred during other parts of the air travel experience.

Rental car customers say they wait an average of 22 minutes to pick up their vehicle, and 14 minutes to return the vehicle, while air travelers report waiting an average of 13 minutes to obtain a boarding pass and check baggage, 15 minutes to go through airport security and 18 minutes to retrieve checked luggage. Hotel customers report waiting 10 minutes, on average, to check in.

"While travelers understand that some waiting is unavoidable, customers still expect wait times to be kept to a minimum, especially for simpler tasks, such as checking into a hotel or for a flight," Gaz said.

"Rental car companies can improve upon managing customer perceptions by finding ways to expedite the pickup and return processes," he said. "When customers believe that they have to wait longer to return a rental car than to go through a security checkpoint . . . their satisfaction diminishes, and understandably so."

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D.R. Stewart 581-8451

don.stewart@tulsaworld.com

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