WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. — Sharp increases in rental car pricing have changed the way consumers view their car rental experience, according to the "J.D. Power and Associates 2003 Domestic Airport Rental Car Customer Satisfaction Study" released today.

The two largest rental car companies located at airports, Avis and Hertz, tie for the top spot in overall satisfaction and are followed by National and Enterprise.

The study, which measures customer satisfaction among business and leisure consumers who rented a car at or near an airport, finds that for the first time in eight years, rental car rates and value have become the most influential factor affecting customer satisfaction.

Rates for business renters increased dramatically in 2003, with an average reported increase of 10.3% over 2002. Leisure rates, which had always been a more competitive segment of the market, are up a reported 7.5%.

"It's unusual for price to have the largest effect on customer satisfaction," said Mike Taylor, senior director of travel services for J.D. Power and Associates. "In the past, renters were most concerned about getting into the rental car as quickly and easily as possible. But since 9/11, we've seen dramatic changes in prices and fees, and these changes have caught the attention of renters. There is also an increase in reported billing errors, no doubt tied to surprising price increases."

The post-9/11 reduction in air travel has reduced the congestion seen at the largest airport rental car companies. Avis and Hertz renters have benefited from the reduced traffic as they report better pick-up and return experiences than in 2002. Renters report less crowded shuttle buses, better rental car counter help and speedier returns at Avis and Hertz. Avis also improved services to renters in every factor, while Hertz improved their performance with leisure travelers.

However, rental car fleets have been getting older in 2003. There's a widespread decrease in satisfaction with the rental car itself across most of the rental car companies. Rental car companies have trimmed their fleets to reduce costs, which has resulted in renters encountering cars with more wear and tear.

Use of the Internet continues to be a strong trend in car rental. Among leisure renters, 44% use the Web to book their rental—- up 8% from a year ago. Among business renters, 39% report checking the Web -— up 9% over 2002. Renters report checking Web sites of rental car companies more often than independent travel-related Web sites.

The "2003 Domestic Airport Rental Car Customer Satisfaction Study" is based on responses from more than 2,800 business and leisure rental car customers.

Headquartered in Westlake Village, Calif., J.D. Power and Associates is a marketing information services firm.