It seems that on an almost weekly basis we are hearing stories of customers being removed — forcibly or otherwise — from commercial airlines. The headlines are sensational. The memes on social media are often hysterical, but the brand perception problem is no laughing matter to the $736 billion USD passenger airline industry. There is a big problem and a big opportunity.A Brandigo study of 410 consumers conducted between May 10th and 12th found that a staggering 73.5% of people feel that airlines view them simply as "a ticket sale or piece of revenue," while only 12% said the feel like they are viewed as "valuable customers."
Think about that. The average cost of a domestic airline ticket in the United States is $349 USD, yet only 12% of those people believe that are viewed as a valuable customer. This is indicative of an industry with a service reputation problem.
It might be precisely the industry's poor service reputation that is reflected in the fact that 59.3% of travelers do not feel loyal to any particular airline. That figure remained fairly consistent, with only a slight increase in loyalty among travelers who fly more than 7 times per year.
And what about the impact caused to airline brands by highly publicized passenger incidents? The Brandigo study questioned respondents further about the April 9th United Airlines incident in which Dr. David Dao was forcibly removed from an aircraft in Chicago.
93.84% of respondents were familiar with the incident, and 56.69% of respondents said that the incident itself had changed their perception of United Airlines. One respondent said:
"I'm hesitant to book with [United Airlines]. At the same time this happened, United rolled out the ‘basic economy’ option, which made me feel like the company is starting to be cheap and not focused on client happiness."
Another study participant noted:
"I had an unfortunate situation with United once where they did not resolve the issue well. I let it go because I like the benefits program United offers with my credit card. The incident of violence really disturbed me and made me question the company's morals and attitude towards paying customers."
When asked to rate their perception of United Airlines PRIOR to the Chicago incident, 81.65% of respondents rated United Airlines neutral, somewhat positive, positive or extremely positive. That is in sharp contrast to the respondent’s CURRENT perceptions following the Chicago event that placed 87.77% of respondents in the neutral, somewhat negative, negative or extremely negative categories with 47.61% viewing the brand as negative to extremely negative.
Perhaps the most troubling statistics for United lie in the fact that 53.72% of respondents are less willing to purchase a ticket from that airline in the future while 36.17% said they would be willing to pay more for a ticket on a competing airline to avoid flying on United Airlines.
All of this, of course, begs the question: what role does the media — mainstream and social — play in the perception of airline brands?
The Brandigo study found that 42.51% of respondents find themselves to be more on edge or on guard when flying following a media-reported event. With 1.73 million domestic air travelers on a daily basis in the US, that means following a media-reported event, there are roughly 755,000 edgy travelers in US airspace concerned about the possibility of an incident occurring.
One final, fascinating statistic to come from the Brandigo study was that 5.61% of respondents have found themselves filming an incident on a smartphone and then posting it to social media to expose the mishap. While 5.61% may not sound like a large percentage, that's more than 1 out of every 20 people!
First, in a service economy where service is the operative word, and creating exceptional customer experiences results in loyalty, the airline industry is falling down. There are, however, co-dependencies as experiences are not solely in the hands of airlines but also in the hands of airports, TSA officials, airport security, and others. Unfortunately for airlines, customers don't necessarily draw that line of distinction between the various entities coming together to create — or ruin — travel experiences.
Second, in an industry where everyone is providing the same service in essentially the same way, there is an opportunity for a carrier to raise the bar for the entire industry. How can the overall air travel experience be improved? Only 4.6% of survey respondents said that the believe airlines view them as human beings. HUMAN. BEINGS. The bar must be elevated, and the answer isn't free movies.
Third, the customer is watching and waiting. They have their smartphones out, and they are waiting to record their $10 million legal settlement video. This is what people do when they don't trust you. Creating an exceptional experience and regaining the trust of travelers is the only way to mitigate this.
Lastly, the customer is always right. The customer may be wrong, but you need to treat them like they're right. Make them feel valuable. This is Customer Service 101. Get back to basics. Simple things like giving a customer the seat they paid for will go a long way to eliminating problems.
When problems occur, the media will be there. And when the media reports it, you're going to end up with a crisis of United Airlines proportions.
Airlines, take your own advice: plan for a smooth flight, but please, fasten your seat just in case there is some unexpected turbulence.