What airlines need to do to make air travelers more satisfied

The 2022 JD Power’s American Airline Satisfaction survey results are out, and the news for many airlines is not good. Jet Blue and Southwest topped the list, while legacy airlines like American and United were near the bottom across the three categories of passengers surveyed (economy, premium economy and first/business). 

Surveys like this will always expose the worst aspects of airline customer service. A recent bad experience can taint a traveler’s views, and with just around 7,000 passengers surveyed across 11 airlines and three classes of service, it does not take much to move up or down a ranking spot in what are tight ranges of scores. 

For example, for first/business passengers, the highest to lowest scores ranged from 878 down to 814. For premium economy passengers, the highest to lowest scores ranged from 851 down to 800. For economy/basic economy passengers, the highest to lowest scores ranged from 849 down to 751. Without knowing the sample sizes within each passenger category and across the airlines, it is difficult to assess if the score differences are statistically significant.

Moreover, Air Canada, United Airlines, Spirit and American all have economy/basic economy scores between 770 and 777, almost certainly making their ratings statistically indistinguishable. Similarly, the premium economy ratings range is just 51 points, suggesting that there may be minimal difference in satisfaction across all six airlines who offer this class of service. 

The standard complaints of travelers, like flights delays or cancelations, are often outside the control of airlines. For example, when thunderstorms roll through an area, airlines must follow Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety protocols. Mechanical problems do occur, and although these are thought to be avoidable, predicting when a tire goes bad or a light bulb burns out can be exceedingly difficult.

Staffing issues become a concern if crews have flown a certain number of hours over a designated time period, like the current calendar month.

This means that if crews were impacted by weather delays early in a month, they may have exhausted their monthly flight time quota near the end of the month, resulting in flight cancellations if other crews are unavailable. 

But what about things that are within an airline’s control? Here are some things that airlines can do to improve customer satisfaction even when circumstances out of their control go awry. 

Under promise and over deliver

When a flight is being delayed, announcing successive 30-minute delays frustrates passengers. These creeping delays, which sometime eventually become cancelations, do not serve anyone’s best interest. When weather maps show a front that may not pass for three hours, it is likely that the flight will be delayed by four or more hours. It’s better to let passengers know the worst-case scenario, and if things improve, give them the good news. The adage, “under promise and over deliver” is worth following.

Own the problem

When things go wrong, such as a mechanical problem, oversold flights or air traffic control issues, airlines should take responsibility for it. Even when the problem is out of an airline’s control, like FAA crew hour limitations, the passenger purchased their ticket with the airline, not the FAA. Taking responsibility for anything that goes wrong makes it easier for travelers to give the airline credit when things go right.  

Empower personnel

When passenger need help, sending them to call an 800 number or telling them to write customer service should never happen. Frontline customer service personnel and gate agents need to be empowered to make decisions and do the right thing for the passenger in front of them when they’re asking for help. Requiring approval from a supervisor or manager to follow some nonstandard protocol that may break a rule takes too long and handicaps the ability to meet the needs of passengers. If a passenger is seeking help, it is because they need help now, due to a situation that has changed from what they expected. Empowering frontline personnel to do what it takes to make the situation right will help alleviate passenger dissatisfaction and encourage passengers to be more forgiving. 

As more travelers return to the skies during the upcoming summer travel period, airlines must think more strategically to improve the customer experience and focus on what they can control. This means that when things go wrong with events that they cannot control, passengers will be more accepting of the inconvenience, believing that the airline has their best interests in mind.

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Jacobson is a data scientist and applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.

Tags air travel Airlines Sheldon H. Jacobson summer travel travel

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