Earlier this month, Purdue University and Wichita State released their annual Airline Quality Rating report, and it was a mixed bag. Traveler complaints were up 22% from last year, but metrics like lost baggage rates and on-time percentage both moved in the direction travelers want them to: lost baggage was down and on-time percentages up. Nice. Meanwhile, Virgin America, JetBlue, Air Tran, Delta and Hawaiian Airlines rounded out the top 5 best airlines while United Airlines, not surprisingly, came in dead last. The 14 airlines included in the report were ranked on a variety of criteria that, in addition to the above, included overall customer service and airline friendliness. Oh United, when will you learn?
In a recent FOX Business article, Roger Black, leader of the Travel Leaders Franchise Group, attributes the uptick in complaints to increased air traffic. Busier skies means longer queues at airports, higher stress levels and a greater chance for travel snags. And fuller planes make for crowded and sometimes unpleasant flying – especially when the middle seat is in use. But according to reporter Kate Rogers, who paraphrased a portion of Black’s words, improved on-time percentages and reduced lost baggage suggest “the fundamentals of good service have gotten better.”
I should react positively to this but anytime I hear variations of the phrase “fundamentals of such and such are sound,” I get nervous. Even if people using it aren’t aware, it’s a sentence structure borrowed from President Herbert Hoover when he infamously declared four days before the start of the Great Depression and the 1929 stock market crash: “the fundamental business of the country, that is the production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous basis.”
Look how that turned out for us.
Despite Hoover’s rosy assessment, economists today agree fundamental flaws were already well-entrenched in the US economy and were being wildly overlooked. Failure to believe in economic health was tantamount to rejecting its reality. Call it “faith-based” capitalism.
Likewise, the 2013 Airline Quality Rating report suggests that the fundamentals of the airline industry aren’t as sound as we would like them to be. Yes, the on-time percentages and lost/mishandled baggage statistics are encouraging news and shouldn’t be dismissed. But a 22% uptick in complaints isn’t trivial either. And if passenger complaints are indeed ingrained to what Black claims – increased air traffic and packed cabins – a severe flier backlash could only be miles – or months – down range.
Neither of these two trends is likely to reverse course. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal and the UK’s Daily Mail, Delta will be among the first airlines to reduce the size of their toilets, saving room for as many as four more cramped seats. While Delta claims the toilets’ shrinkage will be unnoticeable as the improvements are more about “space efficiency versus a smaller potty,” the public’s negative perception might need a courtesy, ahem, flush.
As for air traffic, the birds may have to make way for the Boeings – and all the other aircraft crowding our skies. In February the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported that global passenger demand rose nearly 4% from February 2012. And since October 2012, passenger demand has been growing at an annualized 9% rate – that is a staggering pace. Add to that the Federal Aviation Administration’s prediction that US air traffic will nearly double to 1.2 billion passengers by 2032 and you begin to appreciate the full implications of the Airline Quality Rating report. Even if airlines keep pace, rolling out new aircraft to meet demand, travelers will still be left with ever more crowded skies, clogged terminals and sardine can-like security checkpoints and cabins.
Ancillary Ingenuity an Airline Must
Of course, airlines must continue finding new ways to maximize revenue. Relying solely on ticket prices to make up budgetary shortfalls is a little like flying with half-full fuel tanks – less, in fact, when you really crunch the numbers. But airlines must carefully weigh the impact of ancillary creativity wisdom like monetized in-flight entertainment and Wi-Fi with passenger-hated baggage fees and the impending itty-bitty bathrooms. As if the current johns were so spacious.
Resolving this looming public relations crisis is crucial if we are to really declare the fundamentals of the airline industry sound. I remain skeptical.
What do Loadfactor readers and frequent fliers think of all this? Are the fundamentals of airlines sound? With IATA reporting that 2012 had the lowest incident rate on record (the global rate is one crash for every 470,000 flights) a good counter-argument can be made. Ultimately, for most travelers, planes that land safely are good flights.
But if that’s all passengers are considering, I think something is fundamentally flawed.