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Here's Why Airlines DON'T Care About Customer Service

Hint: It has to do with profits

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Kindra Cooper

airlines bad customer service

Airlines seem to be above reproach when it comes to poor customer service, and the average air traveler knows it. It’s self-evident in the soaring profits of United, which forcibly dragged a passenger off an overbooked flight last year, and in budget carriers offering increasingly spartan flying experiences while insinuating add-on fees for amenities that were once included, like carry-on baggage and inflight entertainment.

We decided to look at it from both sides: what features are inherent in the aviation industry that give businesses little to no incentive to provide decent CS, and in what ways are customers condoning it? What follows is an intriguing push-and-pull.

The industry itself is stacked against good customer service

A new study by the University of Nevada, Reno, finds that there’s no link between customer satisfaction and airline performance. Absent of the profit incentive for investing in CS, airline management is more concerned with filling as many seats as possible - and increasing the number of seats per flight by shrinking seat width and legroom to tack on a few extra rows in economy class. Heck, fuel efficiency in the airline industry is even measured by passenger kilometers per liter, with notoriously no-frills budget carrier Norwegian Airlines ranked first in 2017. By contrast, luxury airliner British Airways, famed for its hospitality and generous legroom, ranks least fuel-efficient.

Worse, the study posits that customer acquiescence is the reason airlines get away with CS flubs that would sink any other service industry. Cost being the deciding factor for most fliers, airlines compete on price rather than service, and customers are willing to book the lowest-priced ticket regardless of the airline’s reputation for customer indifference.

“Price-conscious travelers who believe their customer concerns are worthless implicitly permit the airline industry to deliver the worst possible customer service,” consumer advocate Christopher Elliott wrote in a recent Forbes article. Furthermore, customers are often willing to accept vouchers as compensation, thereby opting to fly with the offending airline again - and within a one-year expiration date set by the airline.

Then again, employees have no incentive to be nice

airlines bad customer serviceOn the employee-facing side, the notion that CS is insubstantial is drummed into cabin crew by airline management, sometimes on a daily basis. A flight attendant’s role is an unusual one: they’re responsible first and foremost for passenger safety and emergency assistance, but also for hospitality. That’s like asking a waiter to moonlight as a dietician.

A former cabin crew member for a major airline wrote anonymously on Quora: “I try to treat everyone politely because that’s something I try to do even in my daily life, but at my airline we are primarily there for passengers’ safety and the service is considered a perk.”

Furthermore, cabin crew are not paid during boarding, taxiing or disembarkation, nor are they compensated for flight delays, so the disincentive to go above and beyond is rooted in pay structures.

At the same time, customers accept the doormat treatment

airlines bad customer serviceUnlike other industries where the Voice of Customer can make or break a business, customers continue to purchase tickets from airlines that treat them poorly or offer delayed flights. Why?

The sheer complexity of flight logistics and over-congested airports means that airlines can (fairly reasonably) blame anyone but themselves for delays. Secondly, the industry itself is oligopolist, particularly for US domestic flights where four carriers control over 80 percent of flights. Third, hierarchical customer segmentation between the highest-value, premium customers and perennial coach fliers who refuse to pay extra for a too-small blanket has mired us in the belief that if we pay less, we deserve sub-par service.

Similarly, after the Titanic was deemed sinking, crew members proceeded to allocate seats on an insufficient number of lifeboats to first-class ticket holders ahead of the riffraff. The airline industry exhibits a direct parallel to traveling on a major ocean liner: what was once considered a luxury and a service experience (and therefore hierarchical) has now become a logistical commodity. Elliott believes customers aren’t punishing the worst carriers enough by refusing to fly with them.

“Airline passengers deserve both a low price and great service, something many other industries have been able to provide while still earning a respectable profit,” he writes.

BUT it makes economic sense for airlines to discriminate between high- and low-paying customers

Inequality is enshrined in frequent flyer programs which, at face value, appear to reward customer loyalty but in reality provide increasingly granular data on passengers’ flying habits which enables airlines to discriminate between platinum flyers and coach passengers at every step, from booking to baggage claim.

On the infamous United Airlines Flight 3411, pulmonologist David Dao was dragged from his seat and had his nose broken when he refused to accept an $800 flight credit in exchange for being bumped off. The United Airlines algorithm had selected him and three other passengers to be bumped, but Dao was the only one who refused. When airlines overbook, their algorithms trawl for the lowest-fare fliers with the least customer lifetime value for bumping. Given the huge disparities between premium and economy fares, it makes economic sense to jeopardize a relationship with a lower-value customer than a business traveler whose company pays for last-minute, top-dollar tickets.

The verdict

Most companies may be tempted to ignore their lowest-margin patrons, but most don’t have that luxury - except airliners, that is. As customers, we should disabuse ourselves of the concept that bottom-tier tickets entitle us to bad service, but also be aware when purchasing that prices don’t lie. Buying from the lowest-cost airlines adds fuel to a race to the bottom between budget carriers to offer the lowest prices, but they can’t do so without making you pay for “perks” like carry-on baggage that middling airlines include with the price of a ticket.

And for those in the business of flying, know that your customers will always gravitate towards whatever is most convenient, and given the intensity of the competition, marginal differences in service can sometimes make a big difference.