What Makes Passengers Loyal to an Airline?

Customer Experience
Customer Experience

Much has been written about the sorry state of airline travel. For many, it's a necessary evil that passengers "get
through" to arrive at their vacation destination or attend that business meeting. But there are bright spots in the
industry that offer the opportunity to build loyalty and develop strong customer relationships.

New research from Carlson Marketing,
Building Stronger Relationships With Frequent Flyers, examines the strength
of relationships between customers and airlines. Carlson Marketing defines relationship strength as the ability of the
ongoing exchange between a company and a customer to grow and endure, and to resist any damaging forces that might destroy it. Strong customer relationships are characterized by trust toward, alignment with, and commitment to an airline.

The study, part of the Carlson Relationship Builder research series, found that customers with high relationship strength are more likely to recommend an airline to friends and colleagues, to fly that airline more, and to consolidate their airline travel purchases to deliver a higher share of wallet. In addition, "A customer's consideration set for choosing an airline appears to be narrowed considerably as relationship strength increases," says Evert de Boer, director of Loyalty for Asia Pacific at
Carlson Marketing. "The focus of the customer upon his or her primary airline is sharpened, thereby potentially
reducing the migration of business to a competitor."

Frequent flyers do make a difference

So what makes a customer's relationship with an airline strong? The research suggests four key drivers: one-to-one communications; a positive customer experience from ticket purchase to in-flight care to luggage handling; keeping the brand promise in all marketing communications and employee behavior; and executing the frequent flyer programs well.

Frequent flyer programs directly impact business results. Among elite-level frequent flyers, for example, the potential to earn frequent flyer privileges rises to nearly the same importance as price and schedule when choosing an airline.

They also indirectly impact results by building stronger relationships that in turn deliver improved outcomes. "Airlines can enhance the role of their frequent flyer programs in building productive relationships by enhancing their quality," explains Bernadette Kirby, subject matter expert on airlines for Carlson Marketing, EMEA. "How is quality enhanced? By customizing the facets and usage of the program on a one-to-one basis to match the needs of each valued customer."

The research identified three factors that influence the perceived quality of the frequent flyer program: how well the attributes of the program (e.g., ease of redeeming for award travel) are executed; how well the program encourages and supports customer engagement activities (e.g., updating a personal profile on the program website); and how well the communications are tailored to be both relevant and customized.

"No one factor alone is responsible for building the stronger customer relationships required to deliver the business results that airlines need today," notes Luc Bondar, vice president of Loyalty, Carlson Marketing. "Airlines must not only design and deliver a high-quality frequent flyer program, but must also ensure that the customer communications are relevant and timely; that customer interactions with airline personnel are friendly; and that the brand is seen positively by customers as having fair prices and supporting charitable and environmental causes. Some airlines are doing better than others. However, the ultimate prize of customer loyalty will go to those airlines that succeed in putting all the pieces together."

Read the full white paper,
"Building Stronger Relationships with Frequent Flyers: the Secret to Loyalty Program Success."