The Customer Service Survey

Will The Airline Industry Put Itself Out of Business with Bad Service?

by Peter Leppik on Fri, 2008-04-11 01:00

I recently took a sympathetic view towards all the American Airlines employees who are put in the miserable position today of trying to deal with the hundreds of thousands of passengers stranded by American's maintenance issues (which have--so far--cancelled over 3,000 flights this week).

Jeff Jarvis writes this morning that the airline business is fundamentally broken: the experience has become so completely and uniformly miserable that customers will disappear unless something radical happens.

I have to agree with Jeff on many points. I should be an ideal customer for air travel: I love to fly, I have a pilot's license, I often have out-of-state business, and I enjoy visiting other cities. But the past few years I've been avoiding air travel whenever possible. I haven't taken a family vacation in six years where we had to fly anywhere (instead, we go places we can drive or take a train), and I try to minimize business travel involving flying anywhere.

Commercial air travel has simply become a miserable experience. From check-in to security to the packed planes, the process is impersonal, unpleasant, and dehumanizing; and that's when nothing goes wrong. Things get even worse when flights are delayed or cancelled, or your plans change.

I lay the blame for this state of affairs squarely at the feet of the airlines themselves. For the past 30 years, they've been training travelers that the only thing that matters is price--despite the fact that many people can and do pay a premium for premium service (and the airlines depend on these customers to make ends meet). At the end of the day, though, there's only so much you can do to provide good service when two-thirds of the passengers on a given flight will always go for the cheapest ticket, no matter what.

Now that the price of jet fuel is soaring, the airlines are discovering just what this lowest-fare mentality is doing to them. They have very little ability to raise prices without losing huge market share, and four airlines have gone bankrupt in just the past two weeks.

As for myself, I gladly pay a 50% premium to fly on my favorite airline, Midwest, whenever I can. Those are the only flights I don't dread.

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