Airlines want you to love them again. Good luck with that!

By | February 29th, 2016

The airline industry wants to have it both ways: It wants to be profitable and be loved by its customers.

It nailed the first one, with a projected $19.2 billion in profits this year, thanks to dramatically lower fuel prices and a string of unpopular fare increases.

And the second one? Well, that’s a work in progress. In fact, the more successful the airline industry gets, the more customers seem to loathe it. American carriers top a recent list of most-hated airlines and airline complaints are at a 15-year high.

But that isn’t stopping them from trying. The domestic airline industry is spending more than $1 billion a month to improve its products and services.

  • On Valentine’s Day, Delta Air Lines passengers flying between New York’s John F. Kennedy airport and San Francisco or Los Angeles received complimentary mini bottles of Veuve du Vernay Rosé sparkling wine and a three-pack of Baked by Melissa bite-size cupcakes in the main cabin. “We love our customers,” said Allison Ausband, the airline’s executive in charge of customer service.
  • American Airlines earlier this month announced it would include snacks and movies in the price of its tickets, even in economy class. Customers traveling on flights departing prior to 9:45 a.m. will receive Biscoff cookies as part of their fare. On flights departing after 9:45 a.m., passengers will have a choice between cookies or pretzels, rotated on a seasonal basis. “Free” snacks were phased out after 9/11 in an aggressive cost-cutting effort.
  • Late last year, United Airlines announced that “free” snacks were back, featuring a morning “stroopwafel” – a Dutch, caramel-filled waffle that “pairs perfectly with coffee or tea” or packaged savory snacks, such as an Asian-style snack mix of rice crackers, sesame sticks and wasabi peas or a zesty-ranch mix of mini pretzel sticks, Cajun corn sticks and ranch soy nuts. It also introduced illycaffe’s signature scuro dark roast coffee at its airport club locations. Technically, none of these items are free, but they are now included in the price of your fare.

Airline critics, who are watching the industry report record earnings quarter after quarter, say this is nothing more than a good start. They note that the domestic airline industry has a lot of runway in front of it before it can reclaim the reputation it lost after deregulation in the 1970s.

But what about the customers?

Economy class passengers, accustomed to years of dramatically reduced services and amenities, are welcoming the changes. But in interviews, some also pointed out that it isn’t the “free” amenities that make a flight better. It’s something that costs the airline nothing.

Just ask Tim Pylant, an engineer from La Grange, Texas, who has flown on United several times this year. “The service improvement probably has to do with flight attendant attitudes,” he says. “They just seem happier and more helpful than the past. I can’t explain it but it does make the flight more pleasant.”

Listening to complaints

In fact many say listening to customers makes a big difference.

“Airlines are listening to user complaints,” says Jessica Coane, who works for a technology company in Nassau, NY. For example, United Airlines, the legacy airline with the lowest customer-service scores, has a new site dedicated to soliciting customer feedback. And it acts on the suggestions, though not as quickly as some customers might want it to.

All those complaints about shrinking seats and legroom appear to be falling on deaf ears. None of the major carriers are adding space. Even JetBlue Airways, which famously promised to bring “humanity” to air travel, recently upgraded its main cabin to squeeze more seats into the plane, upping cabin capacity from 150 passengers to 162. Each row will lose two inches of legroom, which is unfortunate, but still not as tight as the average economy cabin.

What’s next

Industry watchers expect airlines to continue adding more amenities and services this year, given the bright earnings outlook. That is likely to be good news for elite flyers. Airlines tend to lavish the best perks on their business and first-class passengers while tossing economy-class customers an occasional scrap, says Matt Wilson, the co-founder of a tour operator called Under30Experiences.

“I find that the low end-flights are getting worse and the high-end companies are just getting better,” he says.

While the domestic airline industry spent $12.1 billion in the first nine months of 2015 on product enhancements, and to make its customer love it more, the precise breakdown is not public knowledge. All of which seems to suggest that some passengers will love the improvements more than others.

Leo Locke falls into the “not lovin’ it” category. He’s the president of a Boston travel agency and a frequent flier, and he believes airlines are more worried about profits than passengers. On a recent flight, he asked a flight attendant for a glass of water to take his medication. She said she’d be happy to sell him a bottle of water for $3.

“Airlines are more interested in improving their bottom line,” he says. “Not the customer experience.”

Is it working?

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  • Mike

    After my experiences with shoddy customer service from AA at MCO this past weekend, nothing can make me change my opinion regarding the US carriers.

  • Carchar

    In order not to arrive home without sleep on a red-eye from SFO to EWR, (I can’t sleep sitting up,) I went for the lie-flat seats, showing in the seat diagram, in business class. Not 3 days after I bought my ticket, the 757-200 was swapped out for a 777-200 with a sit-up 2-3-2 configuration up front. I am so annoyed right now. I felt like that was really a bait and switch. I only bought the ticket 5 days ago and my flight is next week, so it’s not as if I bought it way in advance.

    When United announced on their Facebook page that they were introducing the Illy coffee and the Stroopwafel, I wrote that I’d really prefer more wiggle room in which to enjoy them.

  • Mike

    My last 2 flights were like that – we set the seats, then they changed the plane, trying to sit my 2 year old daughter by herself. WTF?

  • Flatlander

    Meh. I fly to my vacation destination and back once a year and can tolerate the horrors of flying for that one unpleasant trip. Even if that is with *shudders* Allegiant. For a nonstop flight from the Tampa Bay FL area to anywhere in Maine they are the only game in town AFAIK (I’m looking at you Southwest!).

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I hate to quibble with Elliott. Ok, I don’t. But I’ll be polite. For starters, he again says that “it costs the airline nothing” to improve FA attitudes. I wrote up a while ago that manners and worker morale are not “free” anymore than service is free. When there’s high turnover due to layoffs, low wages and benefits, the seats where FA’s used to relax during long flights changed into regular revenue seats, and the FA’s are encouraged to take it out on the passengers via sky-warden legal empowerment, it’s not all that easy to just tell the FA to “smile” their way out of it. The executive probably smiles when he flies in first class from one golf course meeting to another. The FA standing for 8 hours at a time probably has a greater challenge ahead of her/him.

    I also disagree with the notion that deregulation of the 70’s is the issue. For me, the golden era of flying was in the late 90’s: smoke-free cabins, still very nice (clean) seats, internet search engines for finding fares, and reasonable rates compared to just a decade before. Flying “took off”, pardon the pun, and passengers were happy, all things considered. It was 9-11 and airline consolidation that caused the shared misery we see today.

    The elites aren’t necessary happy either. The airlines are tightening belts there too. Just as it costs 3 bucks for bottled water in economy, the ellites find that qualifying now takes thousands of real dollars to qualify (rather than miles flown) and they must spend this money consistently. So if you fly for a series of conventions every 2 years or so, you could get priced out as your miles expire (Lufthansa has been the worst about this.) In addition, elites are finding their benefits “inflated” into higher tiers they cannot reach.

    Finally, one factor driving all this is that even if the airlines remain profitable in the foreseeable future, the CEO’s get their biggest packages when they make MORE money than last quarter. Making a 10 percent profit is great, but shareholders bail if they see that they didn’t make more than the last quarter. In addition, passengers wise up. Most of the complaints I read in skytrax about Spirit tend to be from first timers. Eventually, they wise up.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Helpful tip (you’re probably already aware of). Try to buy a “Y” class ticket that’s upgrade eligible if buying a few days out and then upgrade THAT ticket to business class with either miles or an upgrade at check in. It will not only wind up cheaper, but if they pull the ol’ bait-‘n’switch, you can get a full refund of the difference.

  • Carchar

    Thanks for the tip, but in this case, there were not that many seats left, and I figured there’d be none left to upgrade to when the time came. As it turns out, with the switch, there are now so many seats open, that I probably will have been upgraded without paying anything, whether miles or cash. Once my back heals and the jet lag wears off after the return flight, I’ll be over it. :)

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Possible. I think that the airlines prefer to sell upgrades a day before rather than giving the seats away to loyalists (at least in the silver/lower gold classes.) Another option with a Y ticket is if you’re transferred to another flight, you usually can get the option to rebook on your own to somewhere else with a better configuration. A few FF’s told me that they PREFER this because they can haggle a sub-quality listing on a flight likely to be cancelled or switched to something better. It’s a game.

  • Carchar

    I will definitely keep this in mind for next time. I usually do this run in economy +, as I get to choose that at ticketing for nothing extra. United had just started refitting their planes for this route with flat beds. Ironically, the day flight to SFO has flat beds, but, now, not the red-eye. I see that other red-eyes the same night are also replaced with 777s.

  • MarkKelling

    They appear to have moved a lot of those flat bed 757s to the Hawaii flights that used to be served by the 777s.

    The utilization of the flat bed planes seems to be off what would make sense (hey, it’s an airline why would anything make sense?) with having them fly out on early morning flights and back in the late afternoon. Might mean the 777s are due for a refit on the seats and they want them close to the major hubs.

  • Peter Varhol

    Chris, why are you conveniently forgetting the multiple years that airlines lost billions, and several airlines went through bankruptcy? And remember that airlines are not a public service; they are publicly traded companies, and are, well, expected to make a profit. The profits that you cite are not excessive (I wish you would note that), and help them invest in more modern planes and technologies. Your constant harping on airlines making a reasonable profit after a decade of multi-billion dollar losses simply isn’t helpful in solving anything.

    Now, I recognize that isn’t your goal here (yes, you are a consumer advocate), but sometimes I really do think you are being unreasonable. And disclosure: I have never worked for an airline or an aircraft company, or in the travel industry at all. I would like to think that I am merely a reasonable voice, occasionally. I do believe that we get the travel experience that we are willing to pay for.

  • David___1

    This reminds me of a presentation on customer service scores I attended a few years ago. I asked this question: “Is what you’re saying is that we don’t suck as bad as we used to?” It seems to apply here as well. (BTW, the answer was “yes”)

  • joycexyz

    Is a bag of peanuts going to make me feel better about being squeezed into an uncomfortably small seat??? Hmmm…let me think about that. And the answer is…not in a million years!!! Do they think we’re stupid? Probably.

  • 42NYC

    ua will refund your ticket or allow you to change your flight when this happens.

  • 42NYC

    Delta flys to two destinations in Maine as does AA and JetBlue. Granted it isn’t non stop. But I guess it’s hard to pay the extra money for a less awful airline but easy to complain about the cheaper airline benign terrible.

    Allegiant has an amazing business model.

  • jim6555

    I live in Tampa Bay and visit relatives in Ogunquit, Maine once or twice a year. I always fly into Manchester, NH non-stop on Southwest and rent a car. It’s about a one hour drive to Ogunquit using NH-101 to I-95 to US-1. If you don’t want to rent a car, perhaps a neighbor or friend can pick you up at MHT.

  • LostInMidwest

    And I should care about it … why exactly? I am not their shareholder, not their executive or their employee. I don’t give a rat’s behind about their business model, nor should anybody not belonging in the three categories specified above. Don’t you think?

  • 42NYC

    It’s an interestng model. Provide no-frills, non-stop service from small cities to key leisure destinations. Being based in Bangor you can fly non-stop to Florida or fly 1-stop via NYC/DC/Philly. Same with Knoxville, TN to Las Vegas or Fargo, ND to Phoenix.

    Sure, its no-frills and cramped seats but its a cheap fare and non-stop service. I think its a great business model from a purely observational point of view.

    As for you, no, you need not give a rat’s behind about their service, but given that you continue to fly them every year (vs another airline out of Bangor or driving to Portland) they must be doing something right which is why you fly them again and again.

    And finally, while I dont know you, i’m going to assume you’re flying to Florida each year out of choice. Nobody puts a gun to your head.

  • Flatlander

    It’s not about the money, I’d rather spend 3 hours on a direct flight with Allegiant that gets me closer to my final destination rather than 6-7 with Delta, JetBlue, etc. They are still the lesser evil, and next time I’ll cough up the extra money for exit row or at least an isle seat.

  • 42NYC

    but thats exactly my point as to why i love their business model. With all due respect to Bangor, Maine it isnt exactly a city that commands lots of air service to a variety of far off cities. Allegiant allows you to get to a leisure destination on a mainline aircraft quickly vs having to take a puddle jumper and connect at LGA or PHL. The tradeoff is cramped seats and fees for everything, but as shown, most will take 3″ of less legroom and some extra fees in order to go non-stop. I would too.

  • Flatlander

    My final destination in Maine is 30 minutes north and west of Augusta which makes Manchester a pretty long trip. Allegiant flies into Bangor which is probably 45 minutes away. The next closest is Portland which is about 1 hour 20 minutes. I have family that pick me up. Next time I’ll just try buy better seats on Allegiant.

  • Flatlander

    Trust me, in the month of July I need very little incentive to get on an aircraft flying from Florida to Maine. Allegiant gets me there the quickest and like ripping off a band-aid it’s less painful to fly directly to where I am going rather than switching flights in Atlanta, Charlotte, or DC. I’ll take the 3 hours of misery over 7 hours of unpleasantness. I agree their business model is great and I’m glad they offer the flight.

  • Carchar

    Thank you for telling me this. However, between yesterday and today, the 777s have now gone back to being the 757s with flat bed. I don’t know what happened, but, in the words of Emily Litella, “Never mind!”

  • Tricia K

    How about starting by not charging me for the extra 4″ of seat that you took away? And maybe, once in a while, may I please have the whole can of soda when I ask and not be admonished that there won’t be enough for everyone else? It was one thing when I used to fly on People’s Express where the ticket was ridiculously cheap that you didn’t care about paying for the peanuts, but not only am I paying a lot for a ticket, now you charge me for your luggage as well Truth is, if their emoyees treat customers in a kind and decent manner, and get them to their destination on time, we would all be a lot happier. What astounds me is that Southwest is on the top of the list when it comes to customer service and make a profit without charging people for the first bag. I wish the others would figure out how to do the same.

  • Tricia K

    Here’s another option: fly into Boston and take the relatively short drive to Maine. I do it every summer too. Direct flight. No hassles other than getting out of Boston, and even that isn’t all that bad.

  • Skeptic

    I voted “no,” but how is it that a travel agency president and frequent flyer doesn’t know enough to bring an empty water bottle with him through security and fill it on the sterile side of the airport? Especially if he needs water to wash down prescription pills?? Maybe because most flights he takes are in first class??? If so, he gets little sympathy from someone like me who lives in AK and hence flies long hauls a lot, but whose employer will not pay for any kind of upgrade.