Inside the 2016 ACSI Travel Report

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) has just released it's 2016 Travel Report.

The report highlights customer satisfaction ratings for the airline, hotel, and internet travel site industries. I'm profiling the airline industry in this post because (1) I'm on a plane right now and (2) airlines are consistently lagging in customer satisfaction.

First, the good news. Overall satisfaction among major U.S. airlines is up 4.3 percent in 2016. The bad news is airlines as a whole are the 7th lowest ranked industry on the ACSI. Their overall rating is 72 out of 100 points.

Here's a look at some of the highlights from the report along with a few suggested solutions. You can also download the complete report from the ACSI website.

Image credit: Shai Barzilay

Image credit: Shai Barzilay

What Drives Airlines Satisfaction?

There are a number of factors that jump out from the report. These are the top five:

#5 Business vs. Leisure

Business travelers gave the airlines an overall rating of 76 versus 72 for leisure travelers. This makes sense because business travelers tend to receive more frequent flyer perks that can make travel more comfortable. Business travelers also tend to be more experienced travelers, which allows them to better navigate their way through the travel experience.

 

#4 Loyalty Programs

The ACSI report identified loyalty programs as the 3rd lowest-rate aspect of passenger experience. So, it's no surprise that the top three airlines (Jet Blue, Southwest, and Alaska) on ACSI's list all have loyalty programs that are ranked in the top 5 by by U.S. News & World Report. (Alaska is #1.)

 

#3 In-Flight Experience

The two lowest-rated aspects of passenger experience were seat comfort and quality of in-flight services (beverages, food, movies, and music). Here again is where the customer service leaders excel. Jet Blue is known for having the most comfortable seats. Alaska has their acclaimed selection of in-flight food and beverages. Southwest airlines is known for comfortable seats and free snacks.

 

#2 Checked Baggage

Leisure travelers who paid to check a bag scored the airlines 8 points lower than leisure travelers who did not check a bag (67 vs. 75). This is a major challenge for airlines since baggage fees are widely unpopular. Anecdotally, I see a lot of leisure travelers who check bags struggling to understand additional fees for overweight or oversized bags.

 

#1 Complaint Handling

Airlines stink at handling complaints. The average ACSI score for a leisure traveler who filed a complaint is 52, which is 20 points lower than the overall average. Complaints are typically handled by a consumer affairs office that is primarily accessible via email. It often takes several weeks to receive a response in an era where the standard for email response time is just one hour. This creates a double-whammy where customers are angry at something and then become even angrier at the lack of a timely resolution.

 

Solutions

There are a few things that airlines can do to improve their service ratings.

Education: Travel can be a confusing and stressful experience, especially for leisure travelers. Airlines themselves and airline employees can do a much better job of educating passengers on what to expect and helping them move smoothly through their trip. For example, airline employees might brush up on the right way to help passengers with those check-in kiosks.

Patience: I fly Alaska and Southwest fairly regularly along with a couple of other airlines. Alaska and Southwest gate agents and flight crew members stand out for their warmth, friendliness, and helpfulness. It takes a lot of patience to be that way with passengers, but they have it. Compare this to another airline where 75 percent of gate agents don't even say hello or smile as I board one of their planes.

Complaints: Airlines have to get better at resolving complaints ahead of time. On the frontlines, this means equipping more employees with the resources, tools, and authority to resolve more issues right away. Within consumer affairs offices, any airline that matches other industries by responding to complaints within a few hours (versus several days or weeks) will have a huge advantage.