Business travellers can’t get no airline satisfaction

July 4, 2011

Travellers and airlines aren’t seeing eye to eye at present and haven’t been for quite some time. Their discontent has been sent into wintry proportions by a triple whammy of poor service, higher prices and ancillary fees, especially baggage charges.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI, compiled by the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business), rather bore this out on its June 21 release. It showed that passenger satisfaction with airlines dropped by 1.5 percent to an ACSI score of 65 on a 100-point scale, the joint-lowest among 47 ACSI industries (along with newspapers).

Reporting on the findings the next day, Reuters quoted ACSI managing director David VanAmburg: “There’s been a bubbling discontent for airlines for some time but the situation has worsened slightly from a year ago.”

Least satisfied are the finicky business travel segment (with an ACSI score of 61). VanAmburg suggested in the Reuters piece that “this is because they are putting themselves out there more to be let down by the airlines or an experience.”

I pressed the ACSI head on this. Did he mean that it is somehow in vogue for business travellers to be anti-airline in sentiment, or that they have become too sophisticated for the frills-shedding air product out there?

Not really, he replied; I was reading too much into it. “Frequent travel,” VanAmburg explained, “creates greater opportunities for travellers to be disappointed because the more they experience it the more likely on one or more occasion something, no matter how small, can go wrong with the experience… one of their flights cancelled, delayed, luggage lost, etc.”

VanAmburg did concede that frequent travellers are also tougher to please in that they inevitably become somewhat jaded about the experience.

Well, poor service will do that to you. As the ASI report explains: “Higher fuel prices and fees for baggage and other services raise passenger costs and contribute to discontent among travellers. Passengers who pay for checked bags are much less satisfied than those who don’t (an ACSI score of 58 compared to 68).”

This is why Southwest remains in the satisfaction lead. The ACSI report points to the fact that “switching flights is easy and usually without cost” on the no-frills airline, while “Southwest does not impose baggage fees”; when it does charge, on “value-added services such as early check-in,” passengers don’t mind.

However, Southwest’s recent acquisition of Air Tran, reflects the ACSI team, may cause satisfaction to nosedive like it did with Continental and Delta Air Lines, which both plunged 10 percent this year (the former being absorbed by United and the latter acquiring Northwest).

I asked VanAmburg how airlines should react to the Index.

“I think that to be among the most clever and successful, airlines will (or at least should) try to come up with small ways to create perceptions of added value for customers, insofar as they can do so without upping [their] costs substantially.”

And what about ancillary fees? “Customers don’t mind paying extra costs when they perceive they are getting something out of it. What is so irksome is the feeling that the fees are just empty costs – increases to the total price without any discernible value to the flyer.”

Though intrinsic to the airline experience, feelings of security were not measured in the ACSI survey. Happily, aviation consultancy Ascend released their annual survey of global aviation professionals on June 13 and it goes some way to fill in the gaps.

Fifty-two percent of those surveyed believe airline safety will stay the same or get worse over the next five years, continuing a trend in which 53 percent said this last year and 47 percent in 2009.

Responding to the results, Ascend’s Director of Safety Paul Hayes argues that insiders have lost their confidence because of widespread news coverage of high profile accidents, and points out that: “Air travel is 100 times safer today than in 1950, when commercial aviation was still very new. There would be more than 10 fatal accidents a day if planes were crashing at the same rate now as in those days.”

When asked to rank what the greatest threats to improvement in global airline safety would be over the medium term, the survey results showed that “Shortage of experienced personnel” was considered the number one threat and “Airline management experience/attitudes/culture” was second.

Hayes’ analysis on this: “It’s understandable that people are concerned about a lack of experienced personnel, given that future shortages of pilots, especially in the Asia Pacific region, have repeatedly made headlines.”

“But really, the important point here is that, despite being reminded of high-profile crashes by saturation news coverage, this is a very safe way to travel.”

Safe yes, but not sound. Watch this space for how airlines begin to respond to consumer dissatisfaction.

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