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Survey: Airlines in Customer Satisfaction Tailspin

By Erika Morphy
May 21, 2008 10:40 AM PT

Results of a customer satisfaction survey released this week are timely for one industry in particular, as it faces a perfect storm: the collision of potentially stringent new regulations affecting customer service with a host of economic factors that are driving perception of that service deeper into the ground.

Survey: Airlines in Customer Satisfaction Tailspin

The industry is, of course, the airline industry, which may find itself accountable to a Passengers' Bill of Rights, part of a larger bill pending in the Senate.

The survey is the 2008 American Customer Satisfaction Index, which registered a gain for the first time in a year -- despite the fact that its overall score was dragged down considerably by the airline industry.

The low score was attributed to increasing ticket costs -- a reflection, in part, of higher oil prices -- as well as to the crowded flights, lost luggage and poor customer service survey respondents have cited year after year. In 2008, the airline industry satisfaction score fell to its lowest level since 2001.

Not all the airlines can be painted with the same broad brush. Southwest, which jumped four percentage points in the survey, was the most favored among respondents. American Airlines rose 3 percent. Scores plummeted for most of the other carriers, though. US Airways, for instance, received the lowest score, with its ranking falling 11.5 percent year over year. Customer satisfaction scores for Continental Airlines and US Airways Group fell more than 10 percent.

Coincidentally, the four airlines at the bottom of the industry are also in various stages of merger talks, the ACSI report notes. United Airlines, which scored 56 for a second consecutive year, is contemplating a merger with US Airways. Northwest (-7 percent to 57) and Delta (+2 percent to 60) recently announced that they are going to merge.

Conditioning Passengers

However, the airline industry customer service issues have far deeper roots than the current mergers that are pending, Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, told CRM Buyer.

"Service has been bad for a long time -- and it keeps getting worse. What they are doing is conditioning passengers to meekly accept worse and worse treatment each year."

Hanni's particular bone to pick with the industry is the practice of trapping passengers on a plane sitting on a runway and not permitting them to deplane for hours -- a situation that is occurring with increasing frequency, judging by anecdotal evidence. It happened to her: Sixteen months ago she was stuck on a parked American Airlines jet for more than nine hours. She filed a class action lawsuit against American Airlines for "false imprisonment." She also quit her day job as a realtor to form the Coalition.

This legislative session, a Passengers' Bill of Rights -- which includes providing food, water and clean bathroom facilities to stranded passengers -- has come closer to fruition than any previous legislative efforts. A passenger bill of rights is part of a Senate bill proposed by Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. In 1999, a similar measure was heading for the Congressional finish line when all of the major airlines offered to adopt voluntary standards. Congress promptly let the legislation go.

States have taken a number of stabs at the issue, always grappling with the question of whether states have the right to regulate industry. A federal appeals court in New York's Second Circuit struck down a bill in March. California's state legislature, meanwhile, appears to be forging ahead with its own passenger bill of rights.

JetBlue's Extra Seat

With a multibillion dollar budget at its disposal, the airline industry -- represented by the Air Transport Association, makes a formidable legal and lobbying opponent. Any initiatives states pass, for instance, are sure to be challenged in the courts.

Likewise, the industry is pressing its case aggressively in Congress, arguing that it is not often to blame for delays, and that a passenger bill of rights will result in planes returning to their gates within minutes of receiving clearance for takeoff.

Fortunately -- for consumer advocates, at least -- stories about egregiously poor customer service treatment in the airline industry routinely outrage both the public and Congress.

The most recent example spurred a US$2 million lawsuit against JetBlue. The plaintiff, passenger Gokhan Mutlu, caught a transcontinental flight on a buddy pass -- a free ticket provided to friends and families of JetBlue employees. According to the suit, the flight was full, but a flight attendant who was traveling off duty that day agreed to sit in the jump seat so Mutlu could board.

Ninety minutes into the flight, she changed her mind and wanted her seat back. Mutlu reportedly was first asked -- but then told -- to give up his seat and sit in the bathroom instead. He did -- for about three hours. Aside from the unpleasantness of his accommodations, he was left without a seatbelt while the plane encountered turbulence. Another flight attendant finally told him he could return to his seat.

JetBlue did not respond to requests by CRM Buyer for comment, nor did Mutlu's attorney, Zafer A. Akin.

News of Mutlu's ordeal did not surprise Hanni in the least. "There are a lot of stories out there about poor, and even abusive, treatment -- a lot don't make it into the press."

$150 Get Out of Jail Card

One of those anecdotes comes from Lisa Jacobson-Brown -- interestingly, a former PR manager for an airline. Indeed, she thought her previous stint in the industry had inured her to the airlines' often shabby treatment of passengers -- until one dark day in December.

While flying a regionally based airline from Cancun to Indianapolis nonstop, she found herself stranded on a tarmac in Denver after the flight was diverted for poor weather -- for close to nine hours.

"The toilets weren't working, babies were screaming -- it was awful," she recalled.

What infuriated Jacobson-Brown the most was the way the passengers were treated when the plane finally landed in Indianapolis. "They quickly handed us $150 vouchers as the customs people were ordering us to be inspected (it was an international flight). After we got home, we saw the voucher said something like "by acceptance of this voucher, you agree to give up any and all right to take legal action against" the airline.

"They were absolutely shameless."


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