ATW Editor's Blog

There's no pleasing people

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DOT's latest Air Travel Consumer Report, released today, is packed with lots of great news: US carriers set records in the first half of 2012 for on-time arrival performance, lowest rates of canceled flights,mishandled bags and tarmac delays. Bravo!

But did the traveling public appreciate this stellar performance? Nope. In fact, they appear to hate to arrive on time united with their bags because for the same period, passenger complaints about airline service increased 24%, while in June complaints jumped 46.5%. Complaints about bags increased 12.5%; reservations, ticketing and boarding complaints soared 39.3% and complaints about customer service leapt 44.9%.

How to explain this lack of love for apparent great service? A quick poll among ATW editors pointed to the ancillary fees that are now almost standard practice across US carriers.

This is what my colleague Aaron Karp commented: "In covering the baggage charge issue for years, I've talked to a few people who think the industry very well should charge for bags and other services, but completely bungled the roll out of the fees. Instead of passengers realizing that they are paying only for their own bags instead of, in the previous set up, the light travelers subsidizing the heavy packers, it is widely believed that airlines are just tacking on extra fees. Spirit Airlines CEO always points out that the airline lowers its base fares any time it adds a fee, but the press only covers the new fee. There's not only a sound business case for ancillary fees, but a good consumer case as well. But airlines seem to have lost the PR battle badly on this front."

I think Aaron is right on target. Airlines still have a lot of work to do on their messaging and customer interface over the whole fees unbundling movement.

Christine Boynton, our new media editor, raised another interesting point, which is that the rise in complaints may be linked to the growing ease with which people can register their complaints and swap disgruntlement stories via social media.

I believe there's merit in that also.

But I still think that the messaging lies at the core of this. Rightly or wrongly (I personally believe the latter), people think they are being scalped by these fees; and they may also feel that if they must pay for their bags and aisle seats etc., then they expect more. It's the "I paid 25 bucks to check that bag and you LOST it?" syndrome.

And in today's more crowded planes - thanks to the admirable US airline business practice of capacity discipline -- an aisle seat may not be deemed as valuable if you paid 60 bucks for the privilege and still can't get your roll-on in the overhead bin because the plane's full and everyone else has already stuffed as much as possible onboard to avoid checked bag fees.

Or people could just be arriving at the airport already grumpy and ready to niggle because they think they've already been nickeled-and-dimed. Ancillary fees might have upturned the golden service rule of under-promise and over-deliver.

Either way, there's a dichotomy here and airlines should pay attention.

So, congratulations to Hawaiian Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Mesa Airlines, the gold, silver and bronze medalists in June on-time rates among a record-setting field of competitors. Just be aware that your customers might not appreciate the effort - even if they are going to Hawaii.

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