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Airline Satisfaction Is Up Again. Dear God, How?

Airports + Flying
by Matthew Meltzer Jun 13, 2019

There is an old adage that says you get what you pay for. And the flying public seems to be catching on.

JD Power and Associates, the nation’s default arbiters of corporate image and customer satisfaction, released its annual North American Airline Satisfaction Survey last month, and for the eighth year in a row, overall customer satisfaction is up. This time a whopping 11 points to 773 out of 1,000.

In an era where it seems the seats are getting smaller, the planes more crowded, and delays perpetual, this might seem a little counter-intuitive. But apparently consumers perceive the overall value of the flying experience to be high, and thus, are pretty happy about it.

“By far the value of the ticket is the most important thing,” said Michael Taylor, practice lead for travel at JD Power. “If you’re paying $225 to go from Miami to Chicago, you’re not going to expect a lot for that, so if you get the basic service, that’s fine. It’s about the cost of the ticket, and how fairly the passengers feel they’re being treated.”

Air travel is, to wit, one of the few products whose price has gone down steadily over the past 40 years. In 1979, for example, the average round-trip ticket cost the equivalent of about $615, and about $550 in 1990. By 2018 that number was $362. Add in an average of $22 in fees, and you’re still paying about two-thirds what it would have cost you before.

For that, people are willing to give up turkey sandwiches at meal time.

Despite what you see on TV, airlines are doing a good job

It’s not just lowered expectations from a lowered price point that has people feeling better about air travel. While airport campouts and forcible flight removals grab headlines, for the most part the airlines are doing their jobs much better. And people have taken notice.

“The past three years operationally, have been great,” Taylor said. “[Airlines] hardly ever lose bags, they hardly ever refuse boarding involuntarily, and on-time performance had been pretty good.”

He’s not just spouting that off, either. In OAG’s 2019 Punctuality League, US carriers were five of the ten most punctual large airlines in the world. None rated below 70 percent in on-time performance.

Using technology to improve service

The biggest component in satisfaction is service, and airlines are using personal data to better connect with their regular customers to make them feel more valued.

“Delta tasks their flight crew with interacting with four or five status fliers each flight,” Taylor said. “You’ll see them tapping into their cell phone, which tells them who the person is at every seat, how often they fly, what was their last complaint, what kind of meal do they order, where do they usually sit.”

United Airlines uses that same technology as part of what Taylor calls their “friendliness kick,” using people’s names as much as possible.

“You hear your name said by a flight attendant, that’s worth 125 points out of 1,000 point scale,” he said.

American has done its part by improving things like Wi-Fi speed and updating its fleet of planes, and it was the most improved airline this year with a score up 25 points.

Bag fees and basic economy no longer an issue

When basic economy was first introduced a couple of years ago the flying public cried foul, complaining they’d been duped into buying tickets that carried loads of extra fees, making them feel like second-class citizens by denying them space in overhead bins.

“Basic Economy was introduced by United and American last year and not done very well,” Taylor said. “They’ve recovered from that problem they had communicating what exactly Basic Economy meant.”

Airlines have acquiesced on overhead space, and now allow most basic economy customers to use the bins. They also explain in big, page-long alerts, what your basic economy fare means when you buy it. Which, once again, effectively manages expectations.

Those fees are also making the airlines a lot of money, which they’re reinvesting in the badly needed airport improvements tax dollars can’t buy.

“Bag fees are $4.5 billion in revenue,” Taylor said. “They’re taking that and improving airports. Aggregating all those things and creating profitability, they’re improving equipment and ground facilities.”

This, in turn, shows people their fees aren’t just being swallowed up by shareholders, and lets them feel a little better about plunking down $25 to get Christmas presents home.

Legacy carriers still have a ways to go to catch up to discount airlines — JetBlue and Southwest still rated higher than Alaska Airlines, the highest rated legacy carrier — but the gap is closing. And if cheap flights mean people get to see more of the world, it seems everyone in the industry is winning.

So while we’re no longer in what some think of as the “golden age of flying,” we may be in a golden age of air travel value. Relatively, flying is cheaper than ever, and with managed expectations and a reasonable perception of value, the flying public remains highly satisfied.

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