275 Minutes on Hold: Why Airline Customer Service Still Can’t Keep Up

× 275 Minutes on Hold: Why Airline Customer Service Still Can’t Keep Up

By Tara Culp-Ressler, Special to CNNMoney

There’s no doubt the airline industry has changed rapidly. The longer people have traveled, the better at bringing them back. But it’s not just passengers who have benefited from efficiency in the industry.

More service workers are forced to receive higher wages. And those workers have gone from being pie-in-the-sky idealists to extremely skilled, unionized labor.

But as the airline industry has gotten more efficient, customer service has evolved in the opposite direction. Just check your online itinerary, and you’ll likely see that you are experiencing the worst problems airlines have to offer today.

That’s according to a new report from the Consumer Reports National Research Center, which is based on a recent survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers about their travel experience. Among the 35 questions and results from the survey, this has been the most important question for any customer satisfaction survey since the 1970s: The customer experience is the standard.

More people are skipping the last leg of their flights altogether. And even if you just have to go to the airport, the last thing you want to do is stand in line in the cold.

AAA conducted a similar survey last year, and said similar results.

For the first time since 1966, just over half of American consumers said they would like to begin using an online ticketing system, according to AAA. That’s an incredible leap from only 20% in 2014. Online ticketing is now far superior to the practice of flying without a ticket, according to AAA.

In 1975, there were about 7 million airline passengers and twice as many travel agents handling travel requests. Today there are 17 million passengers and 7 million travel agents — a reduction of half. The airlines certainly seem to benefit, too. In 2016, the average airline charged passengers $1.68 for every dollar their American-based travel agent made. That was almost the same percentage as the fee of $1.75 the airlines charged their own customers.

The growing reliance on online ticketing is also boosting airlines’ already huge customer relationship databases, which can sell discounts to an increasing number of travelers every year.

Meanwhile, the carriers have faced increased scrutiny from Congress. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 imposed the status quo on the industry for 75 years. When the act started, airline passenger was considered extremely important, according to Cynthia Boughton, a professor of marketing at Villanova University and the author of the most-recent book, Fares and Fees. Now, it’s become all about profits and charging fees.

“They have been treating that act like a crutch, a way to pass price increases through to consumers,” she said.

The growing complexity of travel has contributed to the debacle over lost luggage. Airlines now handle roughly 20 million checked bags annually and 4% of them come with a notation that there isn’t enough room.

So how will things change?

There are some signs that will be changing. Airlines, for example, are beginning to shift away from major carrier-only itineraries. Increasingly, they’re encouraging passengers to choose a multi-line itinerary, and to reserve seats in advance — via an airline’s site or at the airport — in hopes that will lead to fewer problems. Airlines also are starting to use crowdsourcing, making it easier for stranded passengers to find someone who can meet them.

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