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Lack of Service is Biggest Complaint

June 18, 2008

By Jessica Hopper, The Miami Herald

Jun. 18–Customer service, not higher fares and additional fees, is the reason passengers’ satisfaction with airlines is at its lowest level in three years, according to a new study by J. D. Power and Associates.

The decline in satisfaction with “people” factors — courteousness, helpfulness, friendliness and knowledge of airline staff — was more than twice as great as the decline in satisfaction with price, the consumer research firm reported.

“We see a very strong correlation in employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction, and this is an example of that,” said Linda Hirneise, the firm’s executive director.

American Airlines, the largest carrier at Miami International Airport, ranked “about average” among traditional large airlines. Its 644 score out of 1,000 marked the first time the airline has fallen below the traditional network carrier average. This year’s average was 650.

“This survey confirms what we are seeing — that we continue to make progress and gains on the customer satisfaction front,” said Martha Pantin, a spokesman for American Airlines. “It also tells us we still have additional work to do, and it’s our intention to work as hard as we can to continue our progress on this front.”

Pantin would not comment on the study’s specific findings.

American received its lowest score in three years. The two areas that declined the most for American were satisfaction with the flight crew and satisfaction with in-flight services, Hirneise said. Both of these factors decreased by 33 index points each, she said.

HIGH SCORES

Continental Airlines and Alaska Airlines scored the highest of traditional network carriers with 684.

Low-cost airlines fared better than traditional network carriers. The average satisfaction rating for low-cost airlines was 730, 80 points higher than the large carrier average.

Spirit Airlines, a Miramar-based low-cost airline, was not listed in the study because it did not meet the criteria of having a billion dollars in passenger revenue. JetBlue ranked highest of the low-cost carriers.

Hirneise said the simple, no-frills business plan of low-cost carriers explains their higher satisfaction ratings.

“They haven’t been subjected to pulling peanuts, pulling movies and pulling meals,” Hirneise said.

Hirneise said industry-wide staff cutbacks, furloughs and budget cuts have left travelers feeling the pain too.

“Airlines must invest, must continue to train, educate and motivate and keep employees informed in this ever-changing environment. We are not blaming staff. They have been stripped of hours, pay and benefits over the last seven years,” Hirneise said.

Christopher Elliott, a reader advocate for National Geographic Traveler and The Miami Herald’s Travel Troubleshooter columnist, said customer service has been an ongoing problem in the airline industry.

“I believe it’s a chain reaction that starts with ineffective management,” Elliott said. “When employees feel as if they are not appreciated, when they are furloughed, laid off, their salaries are cut and their pensions are eliminated, then it should come as no surprise when those employees treat customers like cargo.”

Both American Airlines and Spirit Airlines have announced possible staff cutbacks. Earlier this month, Spirit Airlines said 60 percent of its flight attendants may be displaced or laid off in August. American Airlines said in May it would eliminate an unspecified number of jobs to reduce its domestic capacity up to 12 percent in the fourth quarter.

Elliott said airlines can improve customer satisfaction by treating their employees better.

“In order to fix this, airlines have to start respecting their own employees. When they do that, their employees will begin treating their customers well,” Elliott said.

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