Need I say Moores

Just get it right ​

Every day there is a new headline about an airline getting it wrong, but a recent study revealed that North American passengers are apparently happier than ever.

One day it’s a lost guitar, the next it’s leggings, overbooking and giant rabbits. The airline industry is fertile ground for the tabloids right now.

And yet despite these incidents, the recent JD Power 2017 North America Airline Satisfaction Study* revealed that airline customer satisfaction has reached its highest level ever (up 30 points to 756 out of 1,000), continuing a five-year trend. Why?

For one thing, the survey data was collected between April 2016 and March 2017, which was before the media frenzy began. Maybe the 2018 study will shed more light on the apparent contradiction?

I am reluctant to believe that the recent media splashes reflect day-to day-reality. To draw a poor parallel, when a person goes into hospital for a minor operation and comes out with a super-bug, that’s what captures the headlines, forgetting the millions of people who emerge from hospital safe and well. The same is true for the millions of passengers who have good journeys and safely reach their destination without incident.

My feeling is there are bad apples on both sides. Some airline customer service staff simply shouldn’t be customer service staff. Airlines absolutely have to treat their customers with care and respect. I regularly fly as a passenger and have been appalled by staff attitudes at times.

Some passengers are undoubtedly badly treated and their case should be heard, but others are looking to whip up a social media storm, stirring public outrage for their own gain and fame. Customers know the power of social media and they are not afraid to use it. After all, they are always right.

Equally, I’ve worked in frontline airline customer service roles and I know, first-hand, that it is a tough job. Trying to smile and be polite in the face of extreme provocation is hard work. Safety is the absolute bottom line when it comes to air travel. Sometimes crew members have to insist on procedures, which often seem overly rigid, but are required by law. These jobs are often poorly paid – the people who are are ‘paid enough to get shouted at’ are usually not the ones who are actually getting shouted at.

There is also a misconception that because airlines fly expensive assets around the world with elite premium products, they have deep pockets. The industry may seem wealthy, but this is simply not true.

The situation is made worse by regulators who have bad personal experiences, prompting them to slap more and more rules on an already highly regulated industry. Aviation’s strength is also its weakness. The industry is alluring and interesting. Being well travelled gives people a high profile in both work and leisure circles, meaning everyone has a view and they are very willing to share it.

But strong incentives for good practice are already there. Competition is fierce, particularly in Europe, and consolidation means bigger, more powerful players battling it out amongst themselves – not milder rivalry. And, just as the cost of fuel is incentive enough for the industry to be green, the cost of lost market share is incentive enough to give good service, or face the consequences.

Many of the things which trigger the most complaints are also misunderstood. Airlines have become extremely unpopular for packing passengers tightly into their metal tubes and charging add-on fees for just about everything, but these measures are an absolute necessity to deliver the low fares that passengers love. The industry is safer and cheaper than ever before; that’s a huge and often overlooked achievement.

My feeling is that most passengers are simply after a safe and uneventful journey. If it’s better than that, fantastic. Maybe that’s the view that the majority of people in this survey were trying to convey, but as the media coverage clearly shows, there is definitely room for improvement. According to the JD Power research, airlines are still lagging well behind other customer service industries.

Ultimately, passengers just want airlines to get it right. That is not a simple ask, but it is undoubtedly what airlines want too.

*The survey measures performance in seven areas, including booking, price, ground operations and in-flight service. The findings were from a sample of 11,015 business and leisure travelers who flew on a major North American airline between March 2016 and March 2017.

Victoria Moores victoria.moores@penton.com

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