A Study Tells Us Why Bad Airline Service Is Profitable

No matter what industry you work in, it’s an unwritten rule that the customer is king. In fact, in some workplaces it’s not even unwritten; it’s there in foot high letters on a dayglo background to put you in no doubt. Or, perhaps that was just the dodgy call centres I once had the misfortune to work in.

customer service
Why is bad customer service even a thing?

Either way, we get it drummed into our tiny minds practically from birth that the customer is always right. That without excellent customer service our business is doomed to failure. That nothing can kill profits quite a quickly as a negative Yelp! review.

And yet, one industry seems to be immune to this mantra.

I’ll give you a clue. What website are you on?

Yes, of course, it’s aviation. According to a new study, airlines who don’t care about customer service are seemingly invulnerable to the consequential business failures. Making their customers unhappy will neither force their business to close, nor will it condemn the executives to the fiery pits of hell for all eternity.

(disclaimer: being unable to visit the pits of hell I cannot confirm nor deny the presence of airline CEOs in this location)

Here’s the pain point. According to Professor Jeffrey Wong, University of Nevada:

We have found no link in customer satisfaction and financial performance

That’s right. It seems, from Wong’s analysis, airlines are free to shrink our seats, bump us off flights, charge ridiculous fees for baggage and even lose our luggage with literally no impact on their business.

Wong commented that:

“Airlines don’t seem to place a priority on customer service despite the fact that they advertise to the contrary. And yet, some airlines are still profitable.”

His study has revealed some pretty uncomfortable truths in the aviation industry. No matter how much they charge us, how bad the cabin service is, how long our flight was delayed, we just keep on buying tickets.

The profitability of airlines

Over the last year, US carriers made a cumulative $15.5bn profits, more than a billion more than in 2016. That’s despite issues with rising jet fuel prices, airport taxation and aging fleets.

Although more people are flying than ever before, airline reviews suggest the people are not happy. Airline satisfaction remains low, in the face of numerous customer service crises and inevitably rising ticket prices.

Airline service ratings place them in the bottom 20% of US companies for customer satisfaction. The University of Michigan ranked airline satisfaction as the 8th worst sector in 2017, bettering only those typically complained about businesses like insurance, telephone, internet and pay TV.

How are airlines getting away with it?

One reason airlines stay so profitable is because they are absolutely packing their planes full of fee paying passengers. According to the Department of Transportation, in 2017 flights averaged 85% full, compared to just 77% a decade ago.

However, the real crux of the matter is a harsh one to take on board. Airlines are getting away with it because we are letting them.

cancelled flights
Despite bad experiences, we just keep buying tickets

How many times have you arrived home from a terrible flight experience and sworn never to fly with that carrier again? Perhaps you even submitted your own scathing airline reviews online. But, the next time you needed to fly that route and found that carrier was the cheapest or most convenient for you… didn’t you book a ticket again?

We all seem to have a mentality that ’maybe next time will be better’ or that it was probably ‘just a one off’. It’s this that keeps us booking flights with the same old rubbish carriers, despite their shocking treatment of us as consumers.

In an age where we all readily vote with our feet on all sorts of other services, we really need to start ensuring that, when they don’t look after us, it hits the airlines where it hurts. It’s the only way airline satisfaction will ever improve.


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