A Word about Online Airline Complaints

I’m at a conference for my real job (yes, oddly, I have a real job), and one of the speakers this morning showed a clip of the annoying United Breaks Guitars video from a little while back, and mentioned how companies (and airlines, in particular) need to be careful because nowadays consumers can respond online when they have bad customer service.

Yes, people can respond online.  But as I mentioned a week ago, airline (and hotel) bashing has become so ubiquitous that I would argue it has absolutely no value at all.  Think back to when United Breaks Guitars came out, and how every “expert” was out there saying that United’s exec team must be freaking out blah blah blah blah.  I would venture to guess that somewhere between zero and zero people made an airline ticket purchase decision based in any way whatsoever on the video and the incident it describes.  None.

There would certainly appear to be zero financial impact on the airline directly attributable to the video.  In fact, I would fall into the “any PR is good PR” camp and suggest that this got people talking about United, and in a commodity business, that may actually (and oddly) be a good thing.  For all of the endless and incessant complaining about airlines, there is no indication whatsoever that customer service factors into flight decisions.  I have never seen a study showing this, nor spoken with an airline exec who has any evidence for it, or , to be honest, spoken with a customer who has actually paid more money to avoid a certain airline because “it sucks.”  It doesn’t happen.

Oh yes, people will say, “I avoid flying Delta” or whatever.  But that simply isn’t true.  As we’ve mentioned here before, depending on whether you’re flying for business or pleasure (ie, who is paying for it), people choose a flight because of frequent flyer program, price and schedule.  That’s pretty much it.

So the next time we hear about some supposed customer service disaster in the airline industry, just remember that it doesn’t matter.


  1. Bless you, man! As a flight attendant, I put on my “understanding smile” when people say “I’ll never fly your airline again!” My response? “I’m very sorry you had a bad experience. Maybe I’ll see you in a couple of years after you realize all airlines in America are just as ‘horrible’ as we are.”

  2. Really? Consumers make purchase decisions based on customer service in every industry other than air travel? I find that awfully hard to believe. It certainly isn’t true in my case. When I have a choice, I avoid airlines where I have consistently had poor experiences. I pay more to rent from Hertz or Avis, why wouldn’t I pay more to fly on Continental or Virgin vs. a regional jet or Delta? I have and I do. Now, it is also true that choice is often limited by route, timing, or radical price differences, so I am sometimes stuck. It is also true, as the FA notes above, that air travel is equally miserable on many airlines, so it can be hard to make a choice based on service regardless. Finally, I would argue that many frequent fliers are prioritizing flying on a single airline because of quality – you get better service when you’re Elite, and upgrades are another key way to improve the service experience.

  3. The “Any PR is good PR” was brought into sharp fcus here during the World Cup when FIFA kicked the Dutch girls out of the stadium for wearing sponsored dresses from a brewery. The brewery logo was so small that it was almost invisible but the publicity that was created by FIFA was way better for the brewery than what it would have received from the dresses alone. Personally though I feel that more people than you realise will be turned away from a particular airline due to its bad press. I certainly wouldn’t fly with an airline that had received VALID bad PR.

  4. I believe the airlines provide the online complaint option primarily to allow passengers to vent somewhere other than on the staff members.

  5. I must say that the one time where I’ve really felt a need to complain on an airline website – due to bad handling of a connecting flight, stranding me in London for 24 hours – I did get a professional and polite reply and eventually was given a business upgrade for my next trans-atlantic trip (out AND back). The airline was SAS – maybe they listen better than USAian colleagues?

  6. “Did you know?…” | ExpertFlyer Blog - pingback on August 18, 2011 at 6:35 am

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