Airlines Screw Up Less

Airlines provided customers with their best service in at least 22 years, according to the Airline Quality Rating study released in the first week of April.

In this case, “best” means arriving on-time eight times out of 10 with your bags at the other end and not being bumped from an overbooked flight to begin with.

The AQR data showed, for example, that the rate of mishandled bags dropped to 3.35 per 1,000 passengers.

To put that in some perspective, AirTran had the best baggage handling rate – 1.63. American Eagle had the worst – 7.32.

Still, improvement is improvement, and the research indicates a positive upturn in overall numbers for each of the past four years.

Too bad passengers aren’t noticing. In fact, more than 53 percent of frequent fliers said air travel has gotten worse for them in the past year despite these statistics showing the industry performing at its all-time best. Just 11 percent indicated things are better.

This other report – the Airline Passenger Survey – comes from the same researchers behind the AQR. The 2012 report was released a few days after the AQR and seeks to measure customer perceptions against the more objective performance levels of the AQR.

Over the past four years, more than 4,000 frequent fliers have expressed their opinions in the APS. Take the two together, and it’s easy to see just how much good, old-fashioned customer service matters.

For example, the frequent fliers love Southwest Airlines. The airline takes top honors for “most passenger-friendly” airline and by a wide margin – 35 percent for Southwest and 12 percent for No. 2, JetBlue. That’s true even for frequent fliers who report that Southwest isn’t even their most preferred airline to fly.

On the other hand, Southwest has never earned a great overall AQR. It came in at No. 7 this year, about right in the middle of the pack. In other words, it screws up a little more and a little less than the other guys.

But Southwest consistently has what many competitors don’t – the lowest rate of customer complaints. That’s the one deciding factor, the researchers say, why Southwest continues to show strong business performance even when it isn’t the highest ranked AQR airline.

If price is equal, for example, customer service is the top factor in why the frequent fliers choose an airline.

Customer service might even help the airlines explain why tickets cost more. The majority of the frequent fliers believe price increases are about more than just fuel cost offsets.

“This is part of the global perception by passengers of an industry that does not have customer service or transparency in providing service as a key goal,” the researchers note.

Finally, the researchers have a match made in heaven between the objective AQR and the subjective APS with the merger of Southwest (No. 1 in friendliness and preference) and AirTran (No. 1 in the 2012 AQR). Historically, the researchers say, such mergers have caused a slide to the “least common denominator.”

The researchers say the airlines can buck this trend given their strengths in customer perceptions and objective performance, “but it could also mean a decrease in these strengths for both airlines if not well-managed.”