Does the U.S. deliver?
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