2017 Customer Experience Lessons from the Airline… | CustomerGauge 2017 Customer Experience Lessons from the Airline Industry…So Far

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2017 Customer Experience Lessons from the Airline Industry…So Far

Now that the dust has settled, and pictures of Dr.David Dao's half naked body are no longer making the rounds on my social feed, I think it's time we talk logically about the elephant in the room: Customer experience within the airline industry has come under hot water over the last few months, through a combination of poor service, ugly PR and heightened social media usage. This has culminated in public outcries, Congress hearings and calls for change in policies from the top down. So what led to this so-called “perfect storm” of customer experience failings, and what, if anything, can be done to improve CX within the airline industry?

Airline Customer Experience: Leaving “People” Out of Policy

The Net Promoter Score® is used to gauge customer loyalty and brand sentiment within various industries. The airline industry has an overall NPS® score of 38, which brings them just above Telecom. On an individual scale, jetBlue and Southwest enjoy higher NPS scores than others, with 68 and 62, respectively. To no one’s surprise, especially after the events of this year thus far, United Airlines sits at an NPS score of 10

travel and hospitality NPS

In the interest of not repeating some of the black eyes of this year’s stories (I'm sure most of us have seen these once over a few times now), below are a list of links to some of the 3 worst incidents in the airline industry, according to social opinion, over the last couple of months:

  • (United Airlines) United Flight 3411: You can find the video and further details of the incident from the Chicago Tribune.
  • (American Airlines) The Stroller Incident: Further details and the full video can be seen on CNN.
  • (Spirit Airlines) Riots in Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL):  CBS News offers some background on the riots at FLL airport

Poor customer service by airlines is nothing new. However, the graphic nature, unfit policies and easily shareable stories propagated by social media from these flights means once isolated incidents are now thrusted into the public eye for all to see. The question on everyone’s mind is: how did we get here?

The answer is telling: policies that don’t put customers first. While it was the airport police who dragged Dr. David Dao off the plane, one bad-behaved flight attendant and unruly passengers after flight cancellations, it was the policies in place that made these situations boil over.

Overbooking Flights and Involuntary Bumping

To be clear, overbooking has been prevalent since the air travel boom of the 1950s.  When overbooking flights, it all comes down to profits for the airline. Statistically speaking, people do and will miss their flights, and when you’re running thousands of flights a day, those empty seats offer millions in revenue opportunities within just 24 hours. Even for airlines that don’t offer refunds for missed flights, in their minds those empty seats offer substantial missed revenue.

How, exactly, airlines determine how many seats to overbook is a bit more complicated.

According to Wired: “Their forecasting systems start with a series of complex inputs: historical data on no-show rates (how many people showed up for this flight last week? Last year?); how many of the tickets sold are refundable; and how many are coming off connected flights. Airlines even use individual data: If you have a habit of missing flights, they’ll sell more seats on your flight than they would otherwise.”

After this an analyst (human), will alter the model based on outside data, such as hurricanes, etc. Based on the data input from both the analyst and algorithm, airlines use this information to determine how many seats to overbook.

But, obviously, people are unpredictable. Some airlines, like Delta, use the opportunity (during the booking process) to have customer bid on how much it would take (in cash value or vouchers) to give up their seat in the event of overbooking, some, like United, haven’t mastered this process. 

However, government enablement of involuntary bumping is half the problem in itself. According to Harvard Business Review, the same government regulation allows for a policy that punishes certain travelers:

“The regulation specifies that if a passenger is involuntarily bumped, airlines have to pay a penalty amounting to 200%–400% (depending on the delay length) of the one-way fare that they paid with a maximum cap of $1,350. This provides an incentive for airlines to bump passengers who paid the least amount for their ticket, often the poorest travelers on the plane. So, while United was offering $1,000, the unlucky four who were told to deplane could end up receiving less than half of that amount if they were flying on discounted $200 round trip tickets. By setting such a low liability, the DOT is inviting airlines to excessively bump passengers.”

When booking a flight, airlines do not always make it clear that depending on the cost of the ticket you purchased, you might be bumped. So, before traveling, it’s always important to understand your rights. Airlines and passengers could benefit from reading some the rules handed down by the Department of Transportation, which includes the following interesting customer experience caveats for involuntary bumping:

  • If the airline arranges transportation within one hour of your originally scheduled arrival time, no compensation is required.
  • If the airline arranges transportation between one and two hours of your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), airlines must compensate you 200% your original one-way fare, with a maximum of $675.
  • If an airline cannot guarantee arrival within two hours or later, or at all, that day, passengers should be compensated up to 400% of their ticket cost, up to $1,350.
  • These rules vary between domestic and international flights, so remember to review the rules prior to departure.

CX takeaways:

  • When possible, bumping should be avoided once passengers get on the plane. It's cramped, public and emotions are already potentially running high. 
  • Airlines should make policies clear to passengers when it comes to overbooking and bumping.
  • Overbooking, from a business standpoint, makes sense. However, lax government regulations based on ticket price and company policies that aren’t matching equal worth between passengers increase the volume of involuntary bumping with lower paying passengers (without an indication that this could be case).
  • If no amount of money will make a passenger get off a flight, it is time to move on. Statistically speaking, one of your passengers will accept compensation, even if it means stretching the amount.
  • Airlines need to take what happened with United seriously, and the warning from Congress that they will take control and end the overbooking policy all together. Canada, just this week, announced that it is now illegal to remove passengers from overbooked flights. 

Company-First Mentality

Sometimes, being at an airport can feel like herding cattle—where you’re the cattle. This can trickle down from the TSA to, for example, flight attendants that rip baby strollers out of the hands of mothers. With the constant mergers between airlines, the limit in competition has created a mentality among airlines that consumers need them, not the other way around.

This type of thinking is part of the reason there was such fury at the response of CEO Oscar Munoz to United Flight 3411, in a leaked letter to employees:

“…As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”

This response gets right to the heart of “policy over people”: where passengers, not policies and practices that allow for overbooking are to blame. 

CX takeaways:

  • If your policies lead to incidents like the one with United, it’s time to reevaluate your policies and employee training. “Standing behind all you do” and “following established procedures” is not the right message to send to your employees or the public.
  • Air travel is a high-stress environment. If you treat your passengers with dignity, ultimately that will trickle down to how they treat your employees too.
  • Social media is king. Everything can be recorded. Shep Hyken got it right when he said: “Dance like nobody’s watching. Treat the customer like somebody is.”

Profit Over Comfort—And Stability

Back in the 50s, flying was truly a luxury. Now, in the “golden age of travel”, airlines are making flying more affordable, or, so it seems. A push for profits over the years yielded increased fees for baggage and reservation changes (following industry-wide trends), and unprecedented segmentation between regular and elite customers.

While there has always been a differentiation between business and economy fliers, post-merger United took its complex caste system to new levels:

“For its very highest-paying Global Services customers, United layered on the benefits: segregated gate agents, dedicated phone lines; short or skipped security lines: in sum, the complete avoidance of the crowds everyone else deals with. Meanwhile, United took boarding away services at the bottom, shrinking seats, imposing punitive fees, removing pre- for parents with children, and increasing the numbers of boarding classes.” While some may argue, "well, you pay for what you get", it's hard to pinpoint (there is no perfect answer) where the line is drawn. The other victim of cost-cutting is employees. When Spirit Airlines had to cancel 9 flights due to in-fighting with pilots, everybody lost. This lack of stability between budget airlines and unions is now falling on passengers.

CX takeaways:

  • There has to be a middle ground between those who pay extra for perks and those who simply want to get from here to there in relative comfort. 
  • Passengers should experience the same great customer service and respect between business and economy class. Period.
  • Spirit Airlines has been in hot water before with their pilot union, and it’s not hard to see why. Airlines like Spirit should be looking to improve BOTH customer and employee experience. Aka: Talk to your employees before issues boil over.


After uproars from passengers, the public and Congress alike, many airlines are now reevaluating their policies to ensure issues like the ones on United, American Airlines and Spirit don’t happen again. And they should, because most likely, someone might be filming them.

Customer experience winners like jetBlue and Southwest use the Net Promoter System® to measure their passenger experience and inform their practices moving forward.

So, what about you? How are you ensuring a great customer experience in your industry? Let us know by taking our latest survey, created in collaboration with MIT CISR. NPS and CX Benchmark survey

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