Ask the pilot

Once again, the same airline comes out on top in a survey of passenger satisfaction. What's Southwest's secret?


Patrick Smith
May 23, 2008 2:09PM (UTC)

In a just-released survey by researchers at the University of Michigan, passengers call airline service "dismal." This is front-page news because ...? Tell us something we don't already know. Scores were tallied on a scale from 1 to 100 using something called the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Twenty-six thousand respondents graded each of the nation's seven largest airlines on a range of issues. The industry as a whole came out at 62, with the airlines themselves scoring as follows, from best (highest) to worst (lowest):

1. Southwest (79)
2. American (62)
3. Continental (62)
4. Delta (60)
5. Northwest (57)
6. United (56)
7. US Airways (54)

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Southwest has topped the list for 15 consecutive years. Continental, having orchestrated a remarkable turnaround to become one of the best-performing majors of the past decade, slipped 10 digits into a second-place tie with American. At the bottom of the bucket are United and US Airways -- not a good sign, really, considering the two companies have been talking merger. Delta and Northwest, soon to join forces, have apparently cleaned up their act. They were the last-place finishers, some of you might recall, in my highly unscientific, dutifully entertaining 2004 Salon readers' poll.

Just the same, I wouldn't put too much stock in the airlines' relative positions. Excepting Southwest -- more on it in a minute -- only eight points separate the best from the worst. Airlines are always trading places in these sorts of surveys, and customer service is, to begin with, a pretty open-ended concept, especially when it comes to surveys that query opinions on such vague attributes as "quality" and "value." I find that on-board service levels have actually improved over the past few years, while the overall air travel experience takes in a slew of ancillary hassles and indignities, not all of which are an airline's fault or responsibility. The ridiculousness of airport security, for instance.

And, as Claes Fornell, the University of Michigan professor whose research center put the survey together, points out, passengers "buy primarily on price, and very little else. The result of that is very low service and a business model of cost-cutting that really leaves no one happy." Indeed, I remember an earlier survey in which fliers living on Long Island admitted they were willing to drive all the way to Newark, N.J., rather than spend an extra $20 on a fare out of nearby JFK. This is what kept airfares at historically low, unsustainable levels for so long. In last week's column I noted that as late as 2006, the average fare was 15 percent cheaper than it had been in 2000, despite a 150 percent rise in fuel costs. Overall, according to data from the Air Transport Association and the U.S. Energy Information Administration, fares between 2000 and early 2008, prior to the most recent spikes, decreased by 2.4 percent overall, while jet fuel, an airline's single biggest expense, went up a whopping 198.3 percent! I'll be raked over the coals for saying so, but the flying public has gotten greedy, and needs to figure out that you can't have rock-bottom ticket prices and top-notch service. (And where is acknowledgment of the industry's astonishingly good safety record? More than six years without a large-scale catastrophe is our best-ever streak. Is safety not an aspect of airline customer service? Are we supposed to take it for granted?)

No, there's no excuse for failing to deliver basics. Every airline passenger wants and deserves respect, dignity and a modicum of creature comforts -- luggage delivered, a clean plane, questions politely answered and an honest explanation when things go bad. These are not outrageous standards. Neither are they expensive for an airline to uphold.

If there's one specific area where carriers continue to fall glaringly short, it's communications, particularly during delays. How this came to be, and what might be done about it, aren't always understood. Having been an employee of five different airlines, large and small, I can attest that the majority of miscommunication is not, contrary to what people think, intentional obfuscation -- lies, if you prefer. Rather, it's the result of the rigidly compartmentalized structure of airlines, where details are passed along from department to department, each with its own vernacular, expertise and operational objectives. At the end of that chain, the person in charge of picking up a microphone and announcing that your plane will be 90 minutes late often has little understanding as to why.

Crew members, too, can be their own worst enemies. Attempting to present the complexities of a maintenance breakdown or traffic delay in a language that everyday passengers can understand, there's a tendency to oversimplify things into condescending baby talk -- or, at the other extreme, to baffle people with technical jargon.

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Of course, if there weren't so many delays in the first place, carriers and their employees wouldn't be so burdened with having to manage and explain them. Reading of the survey in Tuesday's newspaper, I heard Fornell citing factors "beyond an airline's control, such as higher jet-fuel costs and congested airports."

That last point had me spitting out my coffee. The contention that airport congestion is somehow beyond the industry's control is disingenuous at best. It's true that our air traffic controllers are hamstrung, forced to rely on aging equipment and an outmoded airspace system that hasn't really changed since the 1950s. But as I discussed extensively in this space last summer, the airlines have made a bad situation worse through their own gluttonous scheduling practices. Since 1980, the number of Americans who fly each year has more than doubled -- and so has the number of airplanes carrying them. In airline logic, the best way to capture markets is to offer as many flights as possible to as many destinations as possible. To make this happen, airlines have downsized planes while vastly increasing the number of flights, with a particular reliance on small regional jets -- those "Express" and "Connection" affiliates that, at some major airports, make up to half of all takeoffs and landings. The end results of this self-defeating strategy can be seen any summer evening on the tarmac at Kennedy or LaGuardia, where taxi times can exceed two hours. (According to a study by Congress, airline delays last year cost the nation $41 billion in lost productivity, and added $1.6 billion to the airline industry's fuel bill.)

Here too, however, passengers aren't entirely off the hook. For one thing, they buy into this frequency illusion -- quite literally. If fliers were smarter, they might realize that five flights a day between cities A and B is in fact a better option than 10 flights, once they realize that half of those 10 aren't going to leave or arrive when they're supposed to.

Fantasize for a moment about a day when both traffic congestion and airport security nonsense are, if not totally eliminated, greatly mitigated. I reckon that 80 percent of fliers' gripes would disappear.

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We'll always have the dream, I guess.

Meanwhile, go back and look at that list again. Notice the number of points separating Southwest Airlines from everybody below. Why is that, and what is it about Southwest Airlines that makes it such a perennial crowd pleaser? If you ask me, the answer is simple: People don't expect much. Southwest Airlines is nothing if not unpretentious, having mastered the art of get-what-you-pay-for satisfaction.

Looking globally, one notices that the highest-ranking carriers, year after year, are Southwest and Singapore Airlines. No two airlines could be more different, with business models at opposite ends of the spectrum. Southwest is effectively the Wal-Mart of the skies, while Singapore offers superlative perks and amenities, even in economy class. Yet they both excel at making their customers happy. At first this seems perplexing, but when you think about it, it's simple. The key to any carrier's success is nothing more elaborate than giving people what you promise.

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So, to borrow a line from my book, let's all raise a toast to Southwest Airlines. Make it something cheap, domestic and served in aluminum.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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