Airlines' Customer Service Stays Grounded

Customer service efforts are stuck on the tarmac, even as airline passenger volume continues to soar, a report lest week states. The "Airline Quality Rating (AQR) 2006," which reflects performance in the previous calendar year, reports the quality of service to be markedly lower in 2005 than in 2004. Furthermore, the study indicates that the overall caliber of service dropped in 2005 to its lowest point in the past five years. The AQR 2006 marks the 16th edition of the annual report, which calculates the comparative quality of domestic airlines using performance data. This year's report found that performance dropped from the previous year in all of the service-oriented criteria: lost or mishandled baggage, on time performance, involuntary denied boarding, and consumer complaints. While a few airlines improved in one or two of these quality ratings, every one of the 17 airlines in the study garnered a lower overall performance rating than in 2004. "When you look at the different factors (of customer service)--they got worse from 2004 to 2005. But except for baggage, everything else is probably better than it was five years ago," says Dean Headley, coauthor of the report. This perspective may not be comforting to air travelers or the carriers that serve them. Headley cites September 11, 2001, as a definitive turning point in the airline industry. He argues that before 2001, "customers were really unhappy with the way that airlines were treating them." He attributes the general improvement in overall customer quality during the last five years to the drop in the volume of air traffic since 9/11. Likewise, Headley notes that the increase in air passengers in 2005 has created a dip in service. As more people are starting to fly again, "We're back to the volume we were before with the same system." He also blames poor service on widespread employee layoffs and degradation of employee treatment. Total complaints per 100,000 passengers rose from 0.76 in 2004 to 0.89 in 2005. However, this figure is still down from 2.48, the average number of passenger complaints in 1999. Similarly, while the percentage of on time arrivals was 77.3 percent in 2005, down from 78.3 percent in 2004, this percentage was significantly lower (76.1) in 1999. The only area that has seen a severe decline in performance is misdirected luggage, which increased by 25 percent in the last year, the biggest jump in the history of the AQR. Headley sees the backsliding of service in 2005 as a marker of what is yet to come. "Labor battles and fuel prices put pressure on airlines to perform the same services at lower prices," he says. "The pressure on the overall system is going to continue to get worse." This pressure will inevitably lead to poorer customer service and decreased customer satisfaction. The headache of flying might appear to be throbbing harder with no relief in sight, but Headley indicates that there is a prescription. He asserts that customer satisfaction must first be important to employees so that poor experiences, such as lost luggage and delayed flights, can be avoided. "Someone who has a bad experience tells 15 people. Someone who has a good experience tells five. You've got to get rid of those 15 first, and then try to have some more good ones, so that gets out there too." Related articles: Straighten Up and Fly Right
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