Air travelers rip rental car companies in 2021 J.D. Power satisfaction study

·3 min read

Air travelers seeking rental cars are faced with higher prices and lower-quality rentals thanks to the ongoing effects of the pandemic, J.D. Power said in its 2021 North America Rental Car Satisfaction Study, which placed Enterprise atop the heap of companies that otherwise saw near-universal declines in their ratings even compared to a year ago, when the pandemic was in full swing. The average daily cost to rent a car is now up nearly 60%.

Enterprise ranks highest in overall customer satisfaction, with a score of 861, followed fairly closely by National and Alamo. Overall customer satisfaction for the industry is 830, down from 841 in 2020. The biggest loser here is Hertz, which tumbled from consecutive first-place standings to below the industry average — a result which may be at least partly explained by the quality of vehicles being ingested into their current rental fleets.

"Hertz and Avis are paying all the money in the world at the used car auctions," said Steven Lang, an Atlanta-area car dealer and creator of the Long-Term Quality Index. "They have to because no fleet or rental company can get the new cars they need. The few cars they can get are those that no new-car dealer would be willing to sell themselves."

"The only cars making it past franchise dealers are rolling pieces of mediocrity," Lang said, censoring a far more colorful descriptor.

Most companies received fairly high marks for their early responses to the pandemic, which was reflected in last year's results. Not so in 2021. Prices have increased 58% during the last nine months of the study alone, J.D. Power says, and the average customer-cited daily rental fee rose to more than $90.40 by summer. Customer complaints rose as rental companies offered vehicles of decreasing quality while simultaneously hiking prices.

"Rental car companies have been facing significant challenges, both in terms of vehicle supply and staffing—and a combination of rising costs and long lines at the airport is having a negative effect on customer satisfaction," said Michael Taylor, travel intelligence lead at J.D. Power. "The fact that the average price per day for vehicle rental is now above $90 sounds almost hard to believe, but I’ve seen instances in which a subcompact — booked a month in advance — cost $140 a day. Even when customers are aware of the macroeconomic challenges, their personal experiences quickly outweigh economic theory, and the result is lower customer satisfaction."

Rental companies went into money-conservation mode when the travel industry nosedived at the start of the pandemic, auctioning off vast swaths of their fleets as demand for daily rentals dropped to decades-old lows. As restrictions began to lift and an increased demand for travel followed, rental car companies looked to their normal sources to rebuild. If you've been following the global supply-chain nightmare, you probably already know what they discovered: Nobody had anything to sell them.

New cars are heavily supply-constrained and dealers have stripped the used market bare in search of inventory, forcing rental car companies to turn to the same place where their inventories were rapidly liquidated a year ago: wholesale auctions.