The statistics are in and the US airline industry has posted its best operational performance in many moons. On time operations are up, lost bags are down and other metrics appear to be equally positive. And the industry is losing no time in making hay about the numbers.
Nicholas Calio, president of the industry trade group Airlines for America said, “Our member airlines are delivering levels of customer service that no other industry, given its complexity, matches, and are working to make air travel even more efficient for passengers and shippers”. And while there is reason for celebration, delays are only one part of the air travel equation. The statement loses some of its punch by the inclusion of the words “customer service”. There is a world of difference between just meeting schedules and providing actual service.
By all measures, service—in terms of meeting passenger needs throughout the travel process—remains abysmal. Customer complaints, despite improved operation metrics, are up by double digits as passengers continue to find the industry practice of “unbundling” to be a blatant grab for every last cent that can be picked from customers’ pockets.
Some years ago Unisys Corporation commissioned a global study of airlines, which was made up of regional surveys in which people flying in, say Asia, ranked their overall satisfaction. The results were interesting. Asian travelers loved their airlines and the quality service they received. Europeans were less enthusiastic but still generally positive. But Americans, not so much. They gave the US industry the lowest scores of any region and this was before most of the current laundry list of charges had been imposed. Another study found that airlines ranked below the IRS in terms of likability.
Of course, not all US airlines fit into the same catch-all, with the non-legacy carriers (i.e. jetBlue, Southwest, Virgin America) actually scoring rather well, especially in comparison with their legacy peers.
A reality check
Mr. Calio can justly announce improved metrics in overall US airline performance and that, as noted, is commendable for an industry with a complex and easily disrupted operational environment. But to claim this as overall customer service improvement remains a stretch. Simply doing what you contract to do is not, in most aspects of life, considered exceptional. In school it was the definition of a C.
Fortunately for them, the service lapses by the airlines are being overshadowed in this election year by the greater frustration with, and dislike of, the political process. Should the airlines’ popularity ever drop to the levels of Congress, the predicted resurgence of high-speed rail might just come to pass.