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Passengers gave seat comfort especially low marks. What do you expect when leg room in couch gets increasingly cramped to accommodate lie-flat seats and other premium seats.

It’s a good news, bad news story for airline customer satisfaction: Scores are the best in nearly two decades, but consumers still love to hate airlines more than most any other industry, according to a report released Tuesday by the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

Despite raising its benchmark score 2 points, to 69 out of 100, the airline industry beat only cable TV companies and Internet providers in customer satisfaction among 43 industries measured by the index.

“Crowded seating, rising ticket prices, extra fees and poor service all contribute to a rather dreary travel experience,” the report says. Customers were also unhappy with flight schedules and the quality of loyalty programs.

“They’re really just about as bad as it gets,” Forrest Morgeson, the index’s director of research, said of airlines.

Chicago-based United Airlines is emblematic of the industry. Its score remained at the highest level since 2007. But with a dismal score of 62, it was the worst-performing airline among six large carriers measured, rating below the cable and Internet service industries.

Jeff Smisek, CEO of United, said recently that United’s in-house satisfaction scores “have gone up by a factor of five from where they were a year ago,” and he vowed better service for passengers this summer compared with the problem-plagued travel season last year.

United passengers experienced rampant delays and cancellations last summer after United and Continental moved to a common passenger reservation system, an airline’s technology backbone. Glitches and inadequate training of employees were blamed for delays and poor customer service.

“We’re making huge strides,” Smisek said during a speech at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce annual membership meeting June 4. “If you’ve been flying us lately, I think you’ve experienced improvement in customer service, and I think you’re only going to continue to see that going forward.”

The index’s study was conducted during the first quarter of the year, asking about the experience of consumers who flew particular airlines during the previous 12 months. That time frame included United’s trouble-plagued summer of 2012.

Low-cost carrier JetBlue Airways led the airline industry for a second year, up 2 percent, to a score of 83, according to the report, which has been released annually since 1994. Next was Southwest Airlines, the largest carrier at Midway Airport. It rediscovered its “luster,” with a 5 percent gain in satisfaction after a decline following its merger with AirTran Airways, the report said.

Delta Air Lines improved 5 percent, to 68, its highest score in a decade. American Airlines and US Airways, which plan to merge, rate in the mid-60s, just above United.

Airlines aren’t bad at everything when it comes to passengers.

Customers give high marks to airlines for the check-in process (82 out of 100); ease of making reservations (82); and the courtesy and helpfulness of flight crews (81).

But the quality of in-flight services such as the food, beverage service, movies and music was not rated as good (68), and seat comfort was awful (63).

The study’s finding of incremental improvement for airlines echoes others.

For example, airline customer satisfaction improved to its highest level since 2006, according to the J.D. Power & Associates 2013 North America Airline Satisfaction Study released in May. Overall satisfaction improved to 695 on its 1,000-point scale, a 14-point increase from 2012.

A different ranking, called the Airline Quality Rating, a project of researchers at Purdue University and Wichita State University, found that the airline industry in 2012 performed at a near-record-high level on measures important to consumers, such as taking off on time and not losing checked bags. The study is based on data collected by the Transportation Department.

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Tags: airline seats, surveys, united airlines

Photo credit: Handout of of a United Airlines 787 Dreamliner. Gail Hanus / Reuters

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