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Aviation industry’s reputation tanks thanks to high-profile service failures

27th Jul 2017

It’s been a turbulent 2017 for the aviation industry. In April in the US, United Airlines was plunged into a PR crisis thanks to its imprudent response to a video that displayed members of staff violently dragging a passenger from an overbooked flight.

And in the UK a loss of power within British Airways’ data centre caused travel chaos for tens of thousands of BA passengers, with the airline heavily criticised for its handling of the situation.  

Two isolated incidents, but both have played a part in the industry receiving the biggest downturn in customer perception, in a new survey from Engine.

The study, which asked over 1,000 UK consumers to rank industries based on reputation, found that airlines, followed by firms providing broadband and TV packages, did “more than any other sectors to damage their reputations over the last year, through poor customer service and increasing complaint levels”.  

The two sectors saw a major increase in customers citing them for poor service, with airlines citations rising by 4.3% (to 17.1%) and broadband/pay-TV firms by 3.3 points (to 33.5%).

Air travel service stats

Despite this, the two industries were not ranked worst for service overall, with public transport and train companies leading the pack as the worst offenders. However, according to Engine’s co-founder Joe Heapy, it is airlines that should be most alarmed.

“British Airways’ IT melt-down and the United Airlines’ passenger incident were the most high-profile examples in an industry that seems to be struggling to look after its customers,” said Engine’s co-founder Joe Heapy.

“However, it wasn’t just that the incidents were bad, arguably it was their response that caused as much anger, particularly in BA’s case. In an era of rampant cost-cutting, their actions and reactions can give the impression that people are more akin to cargo than passengers.”

Earlier in the year, Mary Clarke, CEO of people risk assessment firm Cognsico told MyCustomer that failings such as United’s and BA’s were a result of poor company culture within the relevant individual organisations, and not industry-wide inertia.

“It builds over a prolonged period in which certain behaviours are overlooked and unchecked by people responsible.

“When the ‘wrong’ behaviours are driven through an organisation and transparency, openness and honesty aren’t prized highly enough, then it will only be a matter of time before the outside world starts to notice.

“How people behave at work is a result of the organisational culture, and sometimes individuals deviate from the expected norms that are put in place by the organisation.

“At other times there are behaviours that are deemed acceptable at first, yet after analysis, are in fact incorrect because the processes driving the behaviour need reviewing, along with why this was embedded in the first place.”

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Replies (4)

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By Joseph Brown
31st Jul 2017 13:42

I totally agree with your analysis! I'm surprised that service/customer orientated organizations continue to fail to understand the importance of the customer. No customers means no business!
The organizations that use a robust C-Sat measurement approach aligned to the performance of every single employee treat their customers differently.

Thanks (1)
Chris Ward
By Chris Ward
01st Aug 2017 10:35

Thanks Joseph,

I agree with your sentiment, however in the case of United, CSAT was a core measurement right up to the incident occurring:

For me, as well as the cultural aspects Clarke discusses, it's the ill-conceived communications and PR responses that is most revealing. A degree of arrogance in both cases that won't wash with customers long-term.

Thanks (0)
By PaulineAshenden
03rd Aug 2017 11:28

It is very true that poor company culture has a major impact on staff motivation and the service that an organisation provides. That’s why customer experience needs to be led from the top - this blog post outlines 4 ways of starting the process

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By Sahib1989
08th Aug 2017 10:45

Customer service is extremely important for every sector but more so for industries that cater directly to their customers and have direct face to face or telephonic conversations with. The travel industry is facing a huge challenge of how to handle irate customers even over their helpline numbers.

I suggest they need to start outsourcing their customer service and call center operations to companies that know how to handle all that.

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