Does the U.S. de­liver?

Onboard Hospitality - - In Debate -

Amer­i­can air­line prof­its are on the up but is this suc­cess com­ing at the ex­pense of their on­board ser­vice? Julie Bax­ter de­bates with Michael Tay­lor, travel prac­tice lead at re­searchers J.D Power Amer­i­can air­lines had their sec­ond most prof­itable year yet in 2017, ac­cord­ing to the Bureau of Trans­porta­tion Sta­tis­tics. ARE THESE PROF­ITS COM­ING AT THE EX­PENSE OF CUS­TOMER SATISFACTION?

Our re­search shows satisfaction im­prov­ing for seven con­sec­u­tive year and it was higher in 2017 for all fac­tors mea­sured: cost & fees; in­flight ser­vices; air­craft; board­ing/de­plan­ing/ bag­gage; flight crew; check-in; and reser­va­tion. How­ever air­lines rate far lower than rental car com­pa­nies and ho­tels largely due to the stress of the de­par­ture dead­line. If you’re late, you still get a room or a car but a flight is gone. That im­pacts satisfaction.

DOES PROD­UCT IN­VEST­MENT PAY OFF?

The study showed that satisfaction is largely due to air­line in­vest­ments in newer planes, im­proved cus­tomer satisfaction with over­head stor­age com­part­ments, and cheaper fares.

WHERE WERE THE WEAKNESSES?

Oper­a­tionally, there has never been a bet­ter time to fly in North Amer­ica. Pas­sen­gers per­ceive greater value in ticket prices, check­ing in has never been eas­ier, pas­sen­gers are more sat­is­fied with the ac­tual air­craft, and air­lines have im­proved their bag­gage-han­dling per­for­mance. The ex­cep­tion is in in­flight ser­vices which in­cludes food, beverage and en­ter­tain­ment sys­tems.

WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE F&B?

The food and beverage data is in­ter­est­ing. It shows that if peo­ple pay for food on a flight and it ex­ceeds their ex­pec­ta­tions they are likely to be far hap­pier with the air­line than if the food was com­pli­men­tary and it ex­ceeded their ex­pec­ta­tions. It seems to be part of hu­man na­ture that if you pay for some­thing and you like it, you feel you got a great deal. If you got some­thing great for free that im­pact on your satisfaction is re­duced. We see the

same in re­search on air­ports, pas­sen­gers think food is ridicu­lously ex­pen­sive but if it ex­ceeds their ex­pec­ta­tions they be­come wildly ec­static about that.

HOW SHOULD AIR­LINES RE­SPOND?

This ev­i­dence sug­gests that if air­lines fo­cus on mak­ing the food and beverage of­fer unique and ex­clu­sive, and of a re­ally good qual­ity, that will be great for their busi­ness. Pas­sen­gers are will­ing to pay for some­thing like that, and they will sub­se­quently like you more in terms of satisfaction rat­ings than if you gave them some­thing free.

IS IT JUST CATER­ING MAK­ING THEM CROSS?

No, air­lines con­tinue to strug­gle to meet cus­tomer ex­pec­ta­tions for de­vice connectivity, with in­flight tech ser­vices scor­ing lower than any other fac­tor in the study. Com­pared with air­craft of­fer­ing seat­back screens, pas­sen­gers us­ing their own mo­bile de­vices to ac­cess in­flight ser­vices are less sat­is­fied with the va­ri­ety of in­flight en­ter­tain­ment avail­able and avail­abil­ity of in­flight ser­vices. Keep­ing pace with im­prove­ments in wifi tech­nol­ogy is dif­fi­cult and ex­pen­sive but to­day’s pas­sen­gers ex­pect trou­ble-free connectivity for per­sonal de­vices. Pas­sen­gers are far more likely to have a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence with an air­line if they are en­ter­tained well in-flight.

WHICH AIR­LINES ARE DO­ING BEST?

Among tra­di­tional car­ri­ers, Alaska Air­lines ranked high­est for the eleventh con­sec­u­tive year, with Delta Air Lines sec­ond. Among low-cost car­ri­ers, South­west Air­lines ranked top, do­ing well in all seven fac­tors, driven in large part by in­vest­ment in fleet im­prove­ments. Jet Blue Air­ways ranked sec­ond. Most im­proved year-on-year was Al­le­giant.

HAVE YOU IDEN­TI­FIED OTHER WEAK SPOTS?

There are other is­sues im­pact­ing satisfaction. The move to very ba­sic fares, for ex­am­ple, with no in­clu­sions was pop­u­lar in terms of the pric­ing but has driven cus­tomer satisfaction down - largely be­cause of is­sues around cabin bag­gage and the very high load fac­tors that low prices gen­er­ate. There are also neg­a­tives around loy­alty pro­grammes, with only 55% of those in a loy­alty scheme un­der­stand­ing how they work. Trav­ellers don't un­der­stand how loy­alty points are al­lo­cated or how to re­deem them so some­thing which should be a real ben­e­fit rarely sup­ports im­proved

cus­tomer satisfaction. •

Michael Tay­lor is travel lead at J.D. Power, a global leader in con­sumer in­sights, ad­vi­sory ser­vices, data and an­a­lyt­ics de­signed to drive cus­tomer satisfaction, growth and prof­itabil­ity

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