Passengers no longer expect much comfort in the skies. Photographer: Paul Thomas/Bloomberg
Passengers no longer expect much comfort in the skies. Photographer: Paul Thomas/Bloomberg

(Corrects description of American Consumer Satisfaction Index in sixth paragraph.)

Airfares are rising, legroom is decreasing, and fees -- from baggage to meals -- are proliferating. In every way, the experience of flying is getting worse for U.S. air passengers. Yet, inexplicably, U.S. government data and surveys of U.S. air passengers suggest that Americans have never been more satisfied with their airlines. For example, last week J.D. Powers and Associates issued its 2014 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, claiming that -- based on a survey of 11,340 passengers -- “overall passenger satisfaction with airlines is at a record high.” Likewise, in April, researchers at Wichita State and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical universities issued their annual national Airline Quality Rating, which ranks airline performance based on Department of Transportation data (including passenger complaints), showing that the 2013 airline score “was the best industry score for all of the 23-year history of the Airline Quality Rating.”

On their face, the data seem to contradict a prevailing sense that U.S. airline service standards have been in decline for years. But dig a little deeper into the data, and something else becomes clear: Americans have finally begun to accept the idea that in an age of cheap, deregulated airfares, they get what they pay for.

The J.D. Power results are particularly instructive. Seven weighted factors make up the market research firm’s customer satisfaction scale: “cost and fees; in-flight services; boarding/deplaning/baggage; flight crew; aircraft; check-in; and reservation,” with “cost and fees” being the most heavily weighted. Curiously, during a year that fares rose 1.6 percent and fees rose 8 percent, customer satisfaction with “cost and fees” also rose -- by 4 percent, according to the data. Similarly, 44 percent of passengers in 2013 found baggage fees “reasonable,” as compared with 37 percent in 2012. The explanation offered by J.D. Power is depressing. “It isn’t that passengers are satisfied with fees,” a news release accompanying the survey noted. “It’s that they are simply less dissatisfied because they realize that fees have become a way of life with air travel.”

In other words: the airlines have started to succeed in lowering -- or, less politely, beating down -- expectations that date back to the so-called “Golden Age” of air travel. Back then, a flight was a luxury for which you might dress up, flight attendants were actually fashionable stewardesses, meals were not only built into your fare but also tasty, and legroom wasn’t an issue. That Golden Age still maintains a tight grip on the imaginations of economy-class fliers, despite the fact that many of them today could no more afford it then than they can afford a business class leisure fare today. As my Bloomberg View colleague, Megan McArdle noted last week:

Let's recall that back in the good old days of flying, most people didn't. They couldn't; it was far too expensive. An airline flight was something you might do once in a very long while, for a special occasion like a honeymoon or a graduation.

Of course, U.S. airlines have never been in a financial position to offer mid-20th century Golden Age amenities to the post-deregulation flying masses (no more than the U.S. economy can afford to offer midcentury “Golden Age” manufacturing employment security to those same masses). I suspect many of the complaints that the airlines receive are based on the fact that they can’t -- and almost certainly don’t -- try to meet those glamorous standards as they try to succeed in a business where 2 percent profit margins are considered stellar.

Transforming the once-glamorous into the now-commodified is unlikely to endear any customer-service-oriented business to its customers. Still, the airlines manage to have achieved a special kind of enmity. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, airlines ranked 39th out of 42 surveyed industries in 2013, coming in behind health insurers, even, for customer friendliness (only social media, and cable and Internet providers, ranked lower). Nonetheless, the industry’s ranking was the highest it had been since 1996 -- a positive benchmark, of sorts, for an industry that would have had to make a special effort to drop lower in the eyes of its resigned customers.

To contact the writer of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net.