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Americans Are Unsatisfied with US Airlines…Who Cares?

Last week the American Customer Satisfaction Index released its annual findings on consumer satisfaction with airlines and the numbers didn’t look good. In short: people were satisfied with Southwest, not satisfied with anyone else, which has pretty much always been the case in this study.

When you dig into it, though, you find out that people are really just unhappy with being charged higher fares (hotels got higher satisfaction ratings this year as rates have leveled off or dropped) and additional fees.
This all begs the question: What the hell difference does it make? Spirit Airlines isn’t in the study, but based on what we’ve all heard about Spirit they would probably be at the bottom of this list. But they are at the top of the list when it comes to profitability. If you were running Spirit would you be concerned about a low customer satisfaction score or would you be patting yourself on the back for coming up with the fees that lead to profitability.

You might say, “while low satisfaction scores many not matter in the short term, it’s not tenable to have your customers unhappy with you long-term.” You might say that, but when it comes to airlines, you would be incorrect. Most travelers find themselves either in a monopoly situation, where there is only 1 nonstop option where they’re going, or where their corporate travel policy compels them to fly one airline. Add that to the incredibly effective frequent flyer programs, and you find that the most profitable frequent flyers don’t have all that much choice at all. Infrequent travelers matter less, as they’re going to be price-shopping anyway.

Years back an article in Harvard Business Review discussed how unless you have the absolute highest level of customer satisfaction scores (say, a 7 out of 7 in the scale they used) it will have little-to-no effect on your company’s profitability. Which is to say, unless you make customer satisfaction a cornerstone of your business (ie, Zappos) it’s not worth making much of an investment there. Airlines can capture so much business through corporate travel contracts and frequent flyer loyalty that customer need only be somewhat satisfied for the carriers to run a profitable business.

And let’s be honest here – when airlines have made customer-friendly moves, customers give them no credit for it. Fares during the recession period in 2008 were ridiculously low. Customer satisfaction did not go through the roof. I point frequently to American Airlines adding More Room in Coach, only to find out that customers were not willing to pay a few extra dollars for the added space versus their competitors with no added legroom. Customers whine about fares and whine about cramped quarters. But when given the option to fly a competitor with more space, they didn’t take it.

Don’t expect airlines to be tripping over each other to win back your hearts and minds after seeing this study. In fairness, the airlines do a pretty OK job with customers – they generally take care of their more frequent customers and offer the others relatively affordable travel. For every person who swears that they will never again fly such and such an airline, I would guess that exactly 100% of them never stick to that pledge. We’re all too cheap.

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  1. No question that price and schedule drive the majority of airfare purchasing decisions. with frequent flyer loyalty and corporate contracts also big drivers. But “customer satisfaction” is certainly worth something. Not necessarily these broad-based studies — where consumers remember that bad United flight from a decade ago — but metrics that frequent travellers care about. Like on-time performance and basic quality.

    I know I make a lot of reservations for myself and others where I have a real choice on which airline to fly. If I think an airline is run poorly, I’m less likely to book a ticket with them. I think it’s this consideration why airlines try to keep their ontime performance up and their mishandled bags and DOT complaints down.