What's Fueling Customer Complaints with Airlines

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More flights are arriving on time while airlines are losing fewer bags and fewer passengers are getting bumped from flights. Yet customer complaints are at their highest levels since 2001, according to the 2016 Airline Quality Rating report. The report, released on April 4, found that while the percentage of flights that arrived on time in 2015 rose from 76.2 percent in 2014 to 79.9 percent last year, customers were most frustrated with problem flights, including cancellations and delays.

More flights are arriving on time while airlines are losing fewer bags and fewer passengers are getting bumped from flights. Yet customer complaints are at their highest levels since 2001, according to the 2016 Airline Quality Rating report. The report, released on April 4, found that while the percentage of flights that arrived on time in 2015 rose from 76.2 percent in 2014 to 79.9 percent last year, customers were most frustrated with problem flights, including cancellations and delays. Dean Headley, one of the report's co-authors and a marketing professor at Wichita State University, believes the increase in customer complaints is being fueled by passengers who are unhappy about the uptick in extra fees that have been imposed by airlines in recent years, including checked baggage fees and higher costs to change or cancel a reservation, and how this prompts them to become more likely to complain when something goes wrong with their trip.

I agree with Headley but my hunch is that there are other factors at play here as well. As customer expectations continue to rise thanks to outstanding experiences customers have with customer-centric brands in different industries, customers have become less tolerant of poor experiences, whether it's with an airline, a retailer, or companies in other industries.

Meanwhile, customers have also become much more vocal about their likes and dislikes, thanks to how they've become empowered by social media and the use of mobile devices. These factors are likely leading more people to voice their dissatisfaction with substandard travel experiences. And while the increases in complaints cited in the report are tied to grievances lodged with the U.S. Department of Transportation, many passengers share their gripes directly with airlines.

Airline passengers aren't stupid. They can see that most flights are full, if not overbooked, and many are aware that industry profits have soared as fuel costs have plummeted. So when passengers are charged $25 for checking a bag or $20 for spotty in-flight WiFi or $100+ for changing a reservation or they feel they haven't received a clear explanation as to why their flight was delayed, all of these things lead to mounting customer frustration.

The bottom line is that airline customers aren't happy with the level of service they're receiving. While some airlines do a good job of listening to customers and act on their feedback, clearly there's room for improvement for a lot of carriers.

EXPERT OPINION
EXPERT OPINION