Northwest Passengers Can't Get No Satisfaction

Northwest Airlines Inc. landed dead last in a survey of travelers that reports how happy or unhappy they are with the nation's 11 largest carriers.

From buying a ticket to picking up bags, Detroit Metro Airport's dominant carrier ranked 10th or 11th in every category in the Web-based survey by J.D. Power and Associates.

In its inaugural Airline Customer Satisfaction Index Study, J.D. Power asked more than 2,600 passengers who traveled last year between May and October to rate their experiences. Of the sample, 262 travelers rated Northwest.

The results come down to how airline employees interact with travelers, said Linda Hirneise, partner and executive director of travel industry research at J.D. Power, which is known most for its annual customer satisfaction surveys in the auto industry.

"Irrespective of if we have a pillow now or if we have to purchase food now, it's about people," Hirneise said.

Northwest responded by saying that the airline ranked second among major carriers for being on time last year, based on separate statistics compiled by the Department of Transportation.

"Customer satisfaction is very important to Northwest, and we are continuing to work to provide the service all of our customers deserve and expect," the company said in a statement Monday.

Northwest's performance is no surprise to many industry experts, travel agents and passengers.

Stephen Ball, 53, of Ann Arbor said he is used to a mix of friendly and curt responses when flying Northwest. "Whenever possible, I drive now, even if inconvenient. The romance of air travel is largely gone. And truck stops are friendlier," said Ball, an associate professor at Cleary University's Ann Arbor campus.

Northwest is known for its aggressive cost cutting.

The airline is trying to get $950 million in concessions from its unions -- some have resisted, but there have been no known work slowdowns as a result. Executives have warned that the airline could ask for even more employee givebacks.

Earlier this month, Northwest joined other major carriers in eliminating free meals for coach passengers. Instead, the airline offers a $3 snack box or a $5 sandwich, a move expected to save $20 million to $30 million annually.

Last year, the company started charging passengers for booking over the phone or in person, giving them an incentive to use the company's Web site, which is cheaper to staff. But it's that kind of cost cutting that has helped make Northwest one of the most fiscally solvent major carriers in an industry that is hemorrhaging cash.

Last year, Northwest lost $878 million. Delta -- which ranked third in the J.D. Power study, the highest of all major carriers -- lost $5.2 billion.

"I think" Northwest is "still trying to figure out how to offer at least something in the way of service and do it at a minimal of cost," said Keya Tucker, vice president and owner of World Travel Inc., a travel agency in Plymouth.

Northwest wouldn't say what it plans to do with the results.

In the auto industry, J.D. Power's surveys that track both initial-quality and long-term durability are closely watched by automakers because they are seen as reliable gauges of consumer preferences and company quality.

These surveys are also closely watched by Wall Street financial analysts as evidence of a company's product-quality record. A good J.D. Power showing is touted all year by an automaker, such as GM, which has improved in recent years and generally scores as the highest-ranked domestic automaker. Toyota finished first among all automakers in 2004 in both auto surveys.

It's not uncommon for automakers to get copies of the surveys and share them with their plant-floor workers so they can see what consumers say about their vehicles, and what areas are typical sore points.

In the airline industry, this survey alone likely won't prompt change. It's not until customer satisfaction affects Northwest's -- or any carrier's -- bottom line, that it will act on such a survey, said airline consultant Darryl Jenkins. But not everyone is convinced that Northwest deserves such low marks.

Minneapolis travel expert Terry Trippler said he wouldn't call Northwest the best in the industry, but it's not the worst.

"I find it virtually impossible to believe," said Trippler, who worked for Northwest at Metro Airport in the past.

Northwest's dominance in its hub markets like Detroit, he said, might hurt the airline in such surveys, especially if some respondents felt that Northwest was their only choice.

"This may be their chance to fire back," Trippler said. "In reality, there is no way that this airline deserves that type of ranking."

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, said he didn't expect Northwest to fare worst either.

"I really never heard much other than normal grousing about Northwest service," he said.

Northwest stock closed Monday at $7.07 on the Nasdaq Stock Market, up 7 cents.

The J.D. Power study also found that the average industry wait for a boarding pass was 7.2 minutes at self-check-in kiosks. That's about half the 14.2-minute-average wait respondents experienced at ticket counters. The results also show that a sizable percentage of passengers are bypassing ticket counters. Thirty-eight percent of respondents used kiosks to check in, and 17 percent checked in online.