Flying High: How Airlines Are Soaring To New Heights In Passenger Satisfaction

There’s good news for those who fly the friendly skies. The experience is getting better.

If you think about it, airlines have a simple product experience. It’s a plane that moves people. Safety is the No. 1 priority. Beyond that, get the passengers to the destination on time. Passengers have choices in airlines. Some are more cost-efficient, such as Frontier and Spirit; or for more money, others, like American and Delta, offer higher service levels, such as first-class cabins. The passenger gets to choose.

Beyond the amenities of the major airlines, one of the most important criteria for customer satisfaction is on-time performance. Not long ago, the public’s confidence in the airlines’ ability to get people to their destinations on time was so low that I joked, “You can treat passengers terribly, but just get them to their destinations safely and on time, and they will fly you again and again.”

Yes, it’s a joke until you are the one experiencing an airline’s electronic breakdown or you’re on the wrong side of a bad storm. Consider that on-time performance can be impacted by three main factors: weather, mechanical issues and operational execution.

Safety is first, and bad weather is a legitimate reason for delays and cancellations. Mechanical issues also fall into that category. Passengers should be happy when an airline finds out about a mechanical issue while the plane is on the ground rather than in the air. However, operational execution is not a good excuse for delays and cancellations. This is what passengers are paying for. For example, a plane that lands on time but ends up delayed because there wasn’t an open gate or a ground crew available to bring the plane in and open the doors is frustrating and stressful to passengers trying to make a connection.

Good News

Aviation analytics company Cirium’s annual On-Time Performance Review has tracked on-time performance for over 15 years. In 2023, the average on-time performance for North American airlines was 74.45%. That means one out of every four flights was either delayed or canceled.

Certain airlines have a better track record than others. In North America, Delta (84.72%), Alaska Airlines (82.25%), American (80.61%) and United (80.04%) are the top on-time performers. Delta and American Airlines also ranked in the top 10 of all global airlines.

More Good News

During the pandemic, airline travel dropped to incredible lows. The return of people flying for vacation and business travel indicated that the pandemic was in the rearview mirror. However, the industry struggled as it worked out how to safely bring back employees and put planes back in the air. But that, too, is in the rearview mirror.

According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), the airlines’ customer satisfaction levels are at an all-time high. Passengers are rating airlines high for experiences such as check-in, boarding, cabin cleanliness and general courteous customer service. Forrest Morgeson, associate professor of marketing at Michigan State University and research emeritus at the ACSI, says, “Airline customer satisfaction has climbed to new heights, reaching scores not seen even before the pandemic disrupted travel.”

A Brighter Horizon for Air Travel

While airlines offer a straightforward service—a safe and on-time flight—there is plenty that happens behind the scenes to make an airline run smoothly. What looks simple on the surface is actually very complicated. Safety, maintenance, scheduling, weather patterns, proper staffing and much more go into running a successful airline. Outside of weather and mechanical issues, operational execution is expected and is essential to maintaining the customer’s confidence in the airline.

Data from Cirium’s annual On-Time Performance Review and the recent results from the ACSI indicate that the airlines are on track. Ongoing improvements in airline customer service and operational efficiency show that the airlines are doing their best to provide a better experience, and exercising caution for weather and maintenance issues continues to make airlines one of the safest ways to travel.

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