For the past 26 years, Dean Headley, a researcher at Wichita State University’s business school, and Brent Bowen, Dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, have co-authored the Airline Quality Report, a quality ranking of the largest 13 airlines in the United States.
The report uses performance data gathered from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s monthly Air Travel Consumer Report to determine the intersection of public perception of each airline’s quality with the airline’s actual performance.
This year, Virgin America Airlines earned the top spot for the fourth year in a row. JetBlue jumped from fourth to second place, and Delta retained its third place position. The report examines performance in four categories: on-time performance, baggage handling, involuntary denied boardings, and customer complaints.
This report is an objective way for consumers to determine an airline’s overall performance and to examine its attention to whatever detail of the flying experience is important to them. The report found that overall performance for the industry as a whole improved over 2015, while the category that saw the most change was complaints.
Gone are the days when airlines struggled just to stay
afloat aloft. Gas is plentiful and affordable, and profits are soaring. So why aren’t there more startup airlines available?
Bankruptcies and consolidations of existing airlines may be scaring off would-be entrepreneurs, although the typical triggers of price overreaches and abandoned regions by the bigger airlines haven’t spurred many to action.
The predominant problem seems to be the maturity of the industry, and the streamlined nature of the business overall. Four major carriers control 85 percent of the market share, so the battle for entry really boils down to one of real estate access.
Alex Wilcox, once an intern at Southwest and an executive for JetBlue and Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., has found real estate available at airports in need of shorter flights. His new venture, JetSuite, has developed a business model based on charging travelers no more than $1 per mile of the flight and flying routes the larger airlines have abandoned. Most flights max out at $300.
The company bought 10 Embraer E-135s that had been part of the now-defunct American Eagle fleet, then spent $1 million each to retrofit them with new seats, wifi, power outlets, and other amenities. They’re focusing on providing expedited service, specifically targeting travelers who don’t want to deal with security delays at larger airports, and amenities typically found only in charter jet service in order to compete for customers.
When checking out your options for air travel this summer, two carriers have set themselves apart from the competition by creating customer loyalty.
According to the Customer Loyalty Index created by Brand Keys, a research consultancy that specializes in consumer behavior and brand loyalty, the majority of the 42,000 travelers surveyed awarded JetBlue the coveted top ranking. (One sidenote: only seven airlines were ranked in the survey results because Brand Keys requires a certain number of responses before a carrier can be included.)
What had this low-cost airline’s customers singing its praises? Its customer rewards program. In 2014, JetBlue decided to aggressively compete with six other loyalty programs by offering the Mosaic Challenge, a 90-day contest that heavily rewarded elite fliers if they would jump ship. It worked. JetBlue’s TrueBlue rewards points don’t expire, and fliers can quickly rack up additional points by booking seats with greater legroom or bringing a pet on board. Rewards members can also choose to donate their points to the charity of their choice.
Another way JetBlue incentivizes its customers to remain loyal is by offering fare options that include a checked bag allowance when purchasing tickets. This applies only to tickets purchased in the BluePlus and BlueFlex categories. If customers purchase their ticket through jetblue.com, they automatically earn twice the points than if they book through another website. All these may seem like little things, but they obviously add up for consumers.
Airline seats are notorious for their ability to make us feel confined and constrained, not to mention uncomfortable. Seats are narrow and there’s not a lot of space between them, so plane rides aren’t always very comfortable.
In the 1960s, when seat dimensions were first prescribed by the Federal Aviation Administration, the seat width was 17 inches and the weight of the average customer was estimated to be 140 for females and 166 for males.
Today, the average seat width is 16.5 inches, while the average weights have increased by 25 and 30 pounds respectively. These incremental changes have functioned on the premise that “one size fits all.” Clearly, this is no longer the case for a growing number of passengers, and airlines are being forced into uncomfortable situations with overweight customers, seemingly without a viable remedy.
If you travel a great deal, you’ve probably been unable to avoid the hassle of being bumped. Overbooking has been the most common reason given for the inconvenience, and it’s usually the correct reason. Airlines book more seats than they have available, because they’re counting on no-shows. Except sometimes people do what they’re supposed to.
Then the dance begins.
The gate agent addresses the passengers waiting to board and explains the flight is full due to the airline overselling the plane’s capacity. They’ll ask for volunteers to give up their seat in exchange for a travel voucher. If no one steps forward, the bumping begins.
But that’s not the only reason to get bumped. Maybe your connector flight doesn’t arrive in time, and you’re automatically bumped to another flight scheduled to arrive three hours later. That’ll put a crimp in your business trip in a hurry.
Airline travel is a necessity for me, but as a taller-than-average guy, I think more about the two inches of extra space some airlines offer, than most people do. Two inches doesn’t seem like much, until your knees are jammed into the seatback in front of you, and you’re wedged in for three to four hours.
According to a survey conducted by Conde Nast Traveler (and reported on Huffington Post), the three airlines that provide the most legroom on US domestic flights include Jet Blue, with 33 inches; Virgin America, with 32 inches; and Southwest, with 32 inches. The bottom two are no surprise: Frontier and Spirit, each with 28 inches (although Spirit offers no recline). Twenty-eight inches is just a non-starter for me.
It’s somewhat surprising to me that the “big three” U.S. carriers — Delta, American, and United — all average 31 inches. It goes to show that utilizing a smaller airline might actually prove to be a better choice, not just for a lower price, but because there can be an extra two inches of legroom.
With the airlines making record profits — a projected $36 million that’s double the number from 2014 — those who work for and observe the airline industry are hoping to see a trend to decrease the “less” mentality that has typified economy class.
International Air Transport Association Director General and CEO Tony Tyler sees this as a time when “passengers are benefiting from greater value than ever — with competitive airfares and product investments,” according to a Future Travel Experience article.
But Devin Liddell, principal brand strategist for Teague design group, thinks there’s really a “race to the bottom” occurring. “It’s all about what can we take away,” he says. He thinks customers are going to reach a point where they say, “Enough! This is becoming ridiculous.”
After the busy holiday travel season, you may have felt like many of your fellow travelers, that you were bleeding money. But before you blame the airline for gouging you, you may be surprised to learn that Congress and the FAA are the real Scrooges in this Dickensian scenario.
When the IRS ruled in 2009 that ticket fares were subject to corporate taxation, but add-on fees weren’t, airlines found their loophole for profitability. As we consumers know, the government can regulate all it wants, but businesses will still find a way to pass the costs created by those policies on to us to achieve the ROI that their shareholders demand.
If you follow the airline news, you might think we’re becoming a nation of complainers. As hard as our service providers try, we’re not happy. The airlines are bearing a large part of our dissatisfaction, and it may be unwarranted.
In a report by the Department of Transportation, while the number of on-time departures and arrivals went up in 2015, and the number of lost bags went down, the number of passengers who complained about their travel experience went up by 20 percent from the previous year.
While the price may not be going down, many airlines are making an effort to demonstrate that they care about their coach customers’ comfort as much as they do about those in business and first class by instituting some changes to the seats and providing amenities.
We found a Yahoo Travel article that showed us some of the ways airlines are working to make coach more comfortable.
- Air New Zealand, China Airlines, and Air Astana all offer flat bed options in economy class. Dubbed “Cuddle Class” on Air New Zealand, a row of seats can be purchased so that two people can lay flat during the flight. The only catch? They have to purchase the third seat in the row, but it’s only half the price of the other seats.
- Air New Zealand is offering the Space Seat in its premium economy class. It gives passengers space and privacy and the couch-style seats rotate for better legroom.
- Lufthansa has created a slimmer seats and Delta now offers economy comfort class, which includes priority boarding, 50 percent more recline, four more inches of legroom, and adjustable head and leg rests. Qantas, Southwest, and Virgin Atlantic have also made improvements to their seating configurations.
- KLM is offering passengers the opportunity to select their seats using social media connections. We’re not sure this is an improvement or a way to stalk other passengers, but passengers of the Dutch airline seem to have taken to it.
- Virgin America, Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, and Emirates all claim improved in-flight entertainment options. Now at least we’re not stuck watching that one film everyone has seen.
- Other airlines are figuring out another way to improve entertainment options. OpenSkies and Quantas offer free iPads to stream their in-flight entertainment content, and Jetstar, Philippine Airlines, and Hawaiian Airlines will rent an iPad to you.
- United, Alaska, Malaysia, and American Airlines have all adopted the Boeing Sky Interior, designed to make the cabin seem bigger and brighter.
- LAN Chile, JAL, Air India, Royal Air Maroc, and United utilize Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner planes, which have special air filtration and cooling systems. These filter bacteria, viruses, and odors.
- Singapore Airlines has employed Michelin-starred chefs on its longer flights to create more appealing food in all its classes.
- Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Airlines, JetBlue, and Etihad Airways are all offering amenities kits with items ranging from socks to pillows to toothbrushes.
What are some changes you’ve seen on your favorite airline? How are they (or are they) making coach more comfortable for you? Leave us a comment here or on our Facebook page.