Customer Experience

United Sinks to Bottom of Customer Satisfaction Barrel

Airline travel experiences were relatively satisfactory for passengers in 2012, based on a number of metrics — except for the most telling one of all: customer complaints. Those rose sharply, according to the Airline Quality Rankings Report, which examined 14 of the largest U.S. airlines and their performance. Overall, Virgin America claimed the highest customer satisfaction rank, while United Airlines scored the lowest.

The report, co-authored by Brent Bowen, head of the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University, and Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University, includes an analysis of figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation, as well as complaints filed with the agency.

Complaints increased 20 percent year over year, Headley told CRM Buyer.

“That is an additional 2,000 complaints, which many not seem to be a significant number,” he said, “but you have to consider that not everyone with a complaint will take the time to file with the DoT.”

The overall AQR score, which takes into account several factors besides customer complaints, was almost identical in 2012 compared to 2011. Furthermore, it was the second-highest in the 23 years researchers have tracked airlines’ performance.

Improvements in certain categories, such as baggage handling and flight schedule accuracy, offset increases in involuntary denied boardings and the number of customer complaints logged — hence the relatively stable scores, Headley explained.

“It doesn’t make sense at face value,” he said. “Airlines are meeting their schedules and losing bags less often, so why are passengers still unhappy?”

It could be that airlines still haven’t cared to master customer service, suggested Headley. “Either the airline is not meeting basic needs of the passenger or is simply not treating him or her kindly.”

New Technologies, Regulations

Airlines made improvements either because new regulations compelled them or better software enabled them, Paul Hudson, president of, told CRM Buyer.

“Two regulations went into effect in 2012 that had an impact: the three-hour rule, which banned airlines from keeping passengers stranded on a tarmac for more than three hours; and the truth-in-scheduling rule,” he noted.

The latter rule requires airlines to either reschedule or cancel any flight that frequently runs late,

The improvement in baggage scores can be attributed to new software that many airlines are using, said Hudson. “Not only has the software gotten better, but more airlines have aggressively begun using barcodes to track suitcases, which has resulted in fewer misplaced bags.”

A Wide Scale

There’s a broad range of service quality in the airline industry, based on the report.

For example, Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance, at 93.4 percent, for 2012, and ExpressJet and American had the worst, at 76.9 percent. The industry average for on-time performance was 81.8 percent.

There shouldn’t be such significant discrepancies, Hudson said. “After all, these airlines are using the same equipment manufactured by the same two companies — Boeing and Airbus, mainly. They use the same training and safety procedures — the pilots have roughly the same level of experience.”

What sets them — and their scores — apart is corporate culture, he posited. “Some airlines just have a passenger-friendly culture, while others have a more arrogant attitude towards their customers.”

The corporate culture or management philosophy of an airline “makes a difference — it really does — which the passenger can actually see,” Headley said.

The airlines’ overall scores (previous scores in parentheses):

  1. Virgin America (new to the ranking this year)
  2. JetBlue (3)
  3. AirTran (1)
  4. Delta (6)
  5. Hawaiian (2)
  6. Alaska (5)
  7. Frontier (4)
  8. Southwest (7)
  9. US Airways (8)
  10. American (10)
  11. American Eagle (15)
  12. SkyWest (9)
  13. ExpressJet (not rated in 2011)
  14. United (12)

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