US airlines: great websites, but lousy products. United may however be reforming, with good cause


From Ron Kuhlmann, with the Centre: “These precedent-setting enforcement actions involve consent orders that reflected a settlement by the carriers of violations alleged by DOT's Aviation Enforcement Office. They are the first enforcement orders punishing carriers for extended tarmac delays, as well as the first time a carrier acting as a ground handler for another airline has been punished for failing to properly help passengers leave an aircraft during an unreasonably long tarmac delay" - US DOT declaration in fining all parties involved in the 08-Aug-2009 stranding of passengers on an Express Jet flight in Rochester, MN.

Little for US legacy airlines to be proud of in 2009

2009 has not been kind to US carriers, especially the legacy players. As indicated above, the DOT was sufficiently impressed with the knuckleheaded response of all parties in the tarmac delay to issue “a pox on all your houses” set of fines that included every contributor the debacle.

One US Congressperson, commenting on the incident, remarked on the absence of “common sense” in the event, making it clear once again that common sense is often not necessarily common. It has also led to the new 3-hour tarmac delay rule whose benefit is hotly contested.

This general level of dissatisfaction was further illustrated by the release of a 2009 Zagat survey on airlines that confirmed, if there was ever much doubt, that, as a group, the US legacy carriers are desperately in need of some help in finding ways to deliver acceptable (forget above-average) service to their customers.

In the results, on a 30-point scale, all of the US legacy carriers, with the exception of Continental, scored between 9 and 11. The new generation carriers like JetBlue and Virgin America scored in the high teens and low 20s with perennial leader, Singapore Airlines, hitting 24.

One area in which the US carriers did well was websites, prompting one participant to comment, “The only strongpoint is their website...because it is not human.” While another said, “It's too bad you can't fly the website."

US legacies lead the world - down

It would be nice to think that these results were an anomaly, but they are largely consistent with every other survey that has been taken for the past decade and each shows a year-on-year decline, indicating some perverse legacy race to the bottom.

And while there are certainly poor performers in every region, the US legacy carriers, as a group, represent the nadir of airline service across the developed world. In a study on Trusted Enterprises done by Unisys, participants raved about Asian carriers, accepted European airlines and uniformly found fault with the US legacy group.

All in all, not a pretty picture and one in which carriers view “customer care” as offering a reduced baggage charge by paying in advance, online. This may not fit in everyone’s definition of service.

As if further substantiation were required, the January 2010 issue of Consumer Reports lists some of the top gripes that Americans harbor. On a 10-point scale, the top two were hidden fees (8.9) and not getting a human on the phone (8.6), both applicable to most carriers. Airlines in general weighed in at 6.9, tied with noisy neighbors and traffic jams. In previous studies they have ranked below the Internal Revenue Service. None of these comparisons is flattering.

A contrast with the world best

Picking US Airways at random, the first line of the Customers First page on the airline’s site reads: 

“Customer service has always been a priority at US Airways, and we are committed to making every flight count for our valued customers.”

Then follows two pages; a compendium of the dos and don’ts involved in travel. They define their responsibilities (or lack thereof) in case of delays, cancellations and overbooking. While these things are certainly a big part of customer service, the airline’s poor ratings probably would not be hugely improved if each were complied with all the time. Why? Because customers believe that they get “good service” when their needs are met and performance is aligned with expectations – quite a different concept than a clear designation of the limits of carrier responsibility.

Interestingly, one of the bullet points is to “Ensure good customer service from codeshare partners” - however that might be done.

As a counterpoint, the opening statement on the Singapore Airlines site reads:

Singapore Airlines has evolved into one of the most respected travel brands around the world. We have one of the world's youngest fleet in the air, a network spanning five continents, and the Singapore Girl as our symbol of quality customer care and service. Customers, investors, partners, and staff — everyone expects excellence of us. And so, in our lounges, our conferences, working relationships, and in the smallest details of flight, we rise to each occasion and deliver the Singapore Airlines experience. “

I suspect that US Airways has little to worry about when its customers codeshare on Singapore. The reverse may not be true.

US low cost airlines lead the way

Most of the new generation carriers in the US get positive reviews for their service and customer care. As has been noted often in the past, Southwest sets low customer expectations and overperforms most of the time, making it a perennial favorite of travelers. The airline’s transparent reluctance to adopt new ancillary charges has only increased their appeal according to many observers, (see Consumer Report’s survey above). A bold strategy, which involves missing out on large additional revenues, this seems to be working.

JetBlue and Virgin America both get very positive ratings for service and customer care. Others, like Allegiant, make no promises other than low fares, and customers seem to accept the offer at face value, making the airline profitable.

And, as these new generation airlines move increasingly into international codeshare positions, the legacy airlines will need to lift their game if they are to maintain a hold on what has previously been their exclusive domain.

United Airlines may be getting it: “ clean, workable….courteous, caring and respectful”

However, a glimmer of light is appearing on the legacy horizon, as United Airlines has embarked on a program of reinvigorating its image. Glenn Tilton, United’s Chairman and CEO, and previously known for multiple attempts to sell or merge the airline said, "… we know one fundamental thing: Without solid, competitive core propositions — operating excellence, customer satisfaction — you don't have a foundation upon which to build."

This seemingly logical reasoning underpins United’s Focus on 5 initiatives, which sets five parameters against which the airline will now measure itself:

  • Adhere to DOT service basics
  • Produce a clean, workable product
  • Provide service that is courteous, caring and respectful
  • Generate industry-leading revenues
  • Have a competitive cost structure

Points 1, 4 and 5 are goals that apply pretty much across the board. But, as shown by the fines imposed for the passenger stranding, the service basics can still get lost in day-to-day operations, even though the commitment to comply is widespread – as demonstrated by the US Airways’ declarations.

Revenue and cost have been, and will continue to be, keys to survival over the long term and cannot be ignored, so no news there.

But points 2 and 3, while logical for any “service” provider, have been strangely absent from the US legacy carriers’ discussions. Based on passenger reviews of airline service that highlight dirty aircraft and unserviceable equipment, the stated goals of clean and workable stand out as notable endeavors.

Even more stunning is the realization that passengers deserve courteous, caring and respectful service. There was a time, of course, when these components were assumed to be an inherent part of air travel – like free checked baggage. However, customers increasingly find that kind of treatment to be an anomaly. United is apparently the first US carrier to publicly set “attitude adjustment” as a corporate priority.

And there is some real action to accompany the words….

More importantly, the carrier is putting real money on the line to achieve the stated goals. So there is to be more to the words than mere rhetoric:

  • Cash bonuses are paid to eligible employees each month the airline ranks first or second in DOT on-time rankings.  To date more than USD25 million has been paid out and performance is improving, having achieved a 91% on-time arrival performance in Nov-2009
  • The airline has undertaken a comprehensive refurbishment of its fleet – the first in many years. Initial surveys done by United show that customer satisfaction scores double when the passenger is traveling on a refurbished aircraft;
  • New staff uniforms will appear in 2011. Not tomorrow, but reasonably soon;
  • Finally, and not insignificantly, United has placed a brochure entitled “Every Action Counts” in the seat pocket of all its aircraft. The 30-page document outlines United; its history, structure, community involvement and commitment to improved service and performance. Passengers are being made aware of the carrier’s efforts, which ups the ante on accountability for results.

Does UA have another motive for this move?

United and Continental have a similar complementary overlay that applied in the Delta/Northwest merger. And speculation on their ultimate combination has always been present; this is given greater credence by Continental’s move from SkyTeam to Star Alliance.

Continental occupies the jackbird seat amongst US legacy carriers and has openly stated in the past that the problems with United’s reputation have been a deterrent to closer cooperation.

However, a United Airlines that is newly committed to improving its customer image also becomes a more desirable partner for a carrier that enjoys a good reputation. Perhaps United’s motivation for the moves is to create a win-win situation that goes beyond its customer base and forms the basis for further consolidation.

And will words translate to action?

In many past initiatives, customers have seen more rhetoric than substance. Given the dire economic situation and ongoing dissatisfaction of labor with their lot, there are substantial obstacles to be surmounted.

Nonetheless, it has been some time since a US legacy carrier has moved ahead “focusing on the fundamentals of our business – safety, reliability, the condition of our aircraft, our interactions with customers and with each other, maximizing our revenue and keeping our costs competitive within our industry.”

For the US legacy group, there is little option but to improve and it is refreshing to see that at least one carrier has begun to realize that the basics, well implemented, may be enough to rise to the top of the heap.

The rewards could be very high, if the makeover attracts not only customers but also a new partner.

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