Why I'm rooting for American Airlines to improve service

Customer service at American Airlines generally leaves a lot to be desired, but I'm rooting for them to improve. A stronger American Airlines creates more competition and can bring some much needed stability to a battered industry. This should result in better overall service from the airlines, even if you aren't flying American.

Competition is Good

The airlines may be much maligned for their overall service, but their industry score on the 2012 American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) was the highest its been since 2003 (see the results here). The traditional carriers like American, Delta, and United continue to lag in service quality, but newer airlines such as JetBlue and Southwest Airlines have picked up the slack considerably.

Without competition, things can get ugly. Look at what happened to Continental Airlines after merging with United. Their ACSI score was 18 percent higher than United in 2010. Two years later, the combined airline's ACSI score declined 13 percent. It will probably get worse since they were responsible for a whopping 33.6 percent of passenger complaints filed with the Department of Transportation in the first half of 2012 (source: The Consumerist).

Competition in the airline industry often comes down to where you fly.

I'm based in San Diego, which isn't a hub for any airline, so my options vary depending on where I'm going. If I want to fly nonstop to San Francisco, I can shop three airlines for the best combination of fare and service. On the other hand, when I travel to Dallas in October to speak at the 2012 ICMI Call Center Conference and Demo, I am literally going two hours out of my way to avoid flying American even though they are my only option for a nonstop flight. I instead chose better fares and service at Southwest Airlines.

Taxing on the runway at DFW

Stability is Needed

Customer service often suffers when businesses struggle. It might start with employee discontent, where employees' concerns over their own jobs create a distraction that negatively impacts their service. This has been happening at American Airlines for quite some time, though their flight attendant union ratified a new labor contract on Sunday which might improve things a bit (see the story here).

Service gets worse when companies start making radical moves in an effort to turn things around. American Airlines is actively considering a merger with another airline, most likely US Airways. Recent history suggests that won't bode well for customers, as evidenced by the United-Continental merger and even the recent decline in service at Southwest Airlines as they merge with Air Tran (see Five Reasons Why Ratings Are Down at Southwest Airlines).

Perhaps worst of all is when an airline goes completely out of business. In March 2008, Aloha Airlines filed for bankruptcy and then abruptly cancelled all of their flights. Ten days later, ATA Airlines (another airline that primarily served Hawaii) followed suit. The result was thousands of stranded passengers and a temporary spike in air fares to and from Hawaii that made it difficult for many people to even get home.

What's Next?

I really don't know, but I fear the worst. Do any airline industry experts care to handicap their chances of turning things around?