Customer Service In Airlines: Who Is Best and Does It Matter?

June 21, 2012

What airline has the best customer service scores? The annual American Customer Satisfaction Index for the airline industry was just released. If you are not familiar with the ASCI, here is a blurb from its site (link no longer available):

The ACSI reports scores on a scale of 0 to 100 at the national level. It also produces indexes for 10 economic sectors, 47 industries (including e-commerce and e-business), more than 225 companies, and over 100 federal or local government services. The measured companies, industries, and sectors are broadly representative of the U.S. economy serving American households. Smaller companies are grouped together in an “All Others” category for each industry.

The following chart shows the winners of the ASCI airline data for this year, as well as the historical trend.

Customer Service in Airlines | ACSI Scores

Source: June 2012 and Historical ACSI Scores (link no longer available)

Are you surprised by the results? And more importantly, do they matter?

What Makes for Great Customer Service in an Airline?

Air travel has become commoditized. In my experience, most people make their decisions for air travel around price, time, and, on occasion, frequent flyer perks.

Think about it. When was the last time you chose an airline because of customer service? When was the last time that customer service overrode price or scheduling in your flight choice? When was the last time you said, I’ll get in two hours later and pay $75 more because I really love flying Brand X.

For the most part, it does not happen. And that is the essence of commoditization.

Airlines present an interesting customer service challenge for two reasons. First, the activity of flying has become inherently unpleasant. Even if the airline does a great job, for most people the best part of their flight is when it’s over. Sure, you can and should make the most out of it, but let’s face it, most people would rather be doing something else.

Second, based on my conversations, it seems that a “good” flight is usually one that has an absence of negatives, not an abundance of positives. A good flight is one in which…

  • You weren’t held up at security
  • You weren’t late
  • You didn’t get a seat near to a “bad” flier (i.e. smelly, noisy, nosy, excessively chatty, etc.)
  • Your flight attendant was not rude
  • They didn’t lose your luggage

In essence, a “good” flight is one in which most of the bad things that we expect out of air travel did not happen.

An Opportunity for Airlines

From pilots to flight attendants to ground crew, all airlines have amazing team members with the potential to deliver great service. Many of these team members are executing and delivering great service every day.

Yet, due to its nature, the process requires outstanding service because the experience is inherently unpleasant. Even Stuart Smalley would probably get grumpy trying to catch a flight at a major hub in the modern era.

The operational and financial constraints of air travel are a challenge that require outside of the box thinking to deliver customer service that makes the airline truly stand out. How do you deliver that personal touch without over-staffing? It’s a tough challenge, and I’m curious to hear thoughts from my fellow fliers.

What could airlines do to make the experience so good that you would sacrifice price and time (at least some) to fly that airline? Southwest Airlines is known for their “Nuts” approach to trying to make air travel fun. Have you flown Southwest and has that made a difference for you?

8 thoughts on “Customer Service In Airlines: Who Is Best and Does It Matter?”

  1. BYOB.

    True story; I flew to Scotland in the middle seat of a 3-seat row in almost the back of the plane next to a somewhat unsanitary Middle Easterner in a totally packed plane. Anybody want to change seats? Good thing it was a short flight, huh?

    I don’t fly enough to weigh in. I go on the internet and try to align cheapest with direct line. It would have to be pretty bad service for me to avoid an airlines; I just want them to get me there.

    Since it is commoditized like it is; how do you make it so outstanding people choose you regardless of what anybody else has to offer?

    1. Yeah, I heard Florida to Scotland is a quick trip! 🙂

      That’s the billion dollar question Bill. With the constraints the airlines have, how do they differentiate enough to make people want to pay or have less convenience? It’s a challenge for sure.

  2. I’ve noticed over the last couple of years that air travel has become as awful an experience as bus travel. The only difference is we get to our destinations faster. Everything else “feels” the same. Long lines. Long waits. Being treated like cattle. Tiny smelly bathrooms. Cramped seats. Customer service staff trained to get you in and out and on your way — and little else.

    That being said, my favorite airline has always been Southwest! Because I was in the hospitality industry for so many years, I have high expectations for anyone who’s on the front lines of customer service, and Southwest has always delivered on that side for me.

    And I would definitely pay more for an airline that’s known for making the flight a better experience for customers. Isn’t that why we go to a sit-down restaurant instead of McDonald’s? And isn’t that why we EXPECT more when we choose a sit-down restaurant? I know I do.

    1. Michelle, I think your quote sums up the challenge: “Long lines. Long waits. Being treated like cattle. Tiny smelly bathrooms. Cramped seats. Customer service staff trained to get you in and out and on your way — and little else.” So many of those things are not changeable through customer service initiatives that the airlines really have a few narrow gaps to make the customer experience better. I truly believe they can improve them, in fact I think there are opportunities to WOW customers throughout the process. The question is can they deliver at that level consistently enough to offset the basic process, and to override price and schedule.

      United is trying to fix some of the other issues you mention by investing in the new 787. I saw a CNBC special on it, seems pretty amazing. But even it the plane is great, the service has to live up to the promise.

  3. Airline customer service is always a tricky one. They can’t do much about security, bathrooms, or all the other crap parts of an airport. Maybe as a collective they could force the airport to but it’s a tough part of their business.

    As far as the other parts (crew friendliness, clean aircraft bathroom, good seats), I always go with Southwest. I won’t fly any other airline unless I absolutely have to. Even if it means a different time or a little more money (which is rare), I’ll always go with Southwest.

    They go the extra mile in a few small areas to make it worth it. Each time I fly into Nashville, one of the crew sings a great “Welcome to Nashville” song. I get to pick my seat so I can get the one I want. And the Boeing 737s they fly are roomy enough. It’s always a great experience.

    Side note: Crazy with that corpse link!

  4. Pingback: Delta Airlines Improves Customer Experience with a Safety Video

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