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April 28, 2021

Flying during COVID-19: How the airline industry keeps passenger satisfaction soaring

David Vanamburg

COVID-19 had the airline industry reaching for the panic button.

According to a Franklin Templeton-Gallup poll conducted in 2020, over half (52%) of Americans who flew at least once in 2019 admitted they were now uncomfortable flying because of the pandemic. Sadly, passenger and revenue numbers soon reflected this growing desire to remain grounded.

International passenger travel plummeted 60% in 2020, per The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and U.S. airlines’ net losses are projected to be more than $35 billion.

Yet, despite the turbulent times, there is one area where the industry soars: customer satisfaction.

In our most recent Travel Report, passenger satisfaction with airlines has never been stronger, climbing 1.3% to its best ACSI score ever at 76 (out of 100). It is the only travel industry to experience customer satisfaction gains years over year.

How are airlines managing to score satisfaction points with passengers amidst these tumultuous times? Let’s find out.

You can’t put a price on comfort

Seat comfort has the lowest score among customer experience benchmarks with an ACSI mark of 73. Yet, it’s also the only aspect of airline travel that improved during the pandemic, rising to an all-time industry high.

Per ACSI data, seat comfort reviews were even better at the beginning of COVID-19, as the whole industry incorporated the practice of blocking middle seats during flights.

Delta, which ties Southwest as the industry leader after jumping 3% to an all-time high of 79, put forth a thorough plan to prioritize social distancing – a plan that also included eliminating middle seat usage. And while other airlines began letting passengers buy middle seats, Delta is keeping the policy in place and limiting capacity on all flights through April 30, 2021.

Passengers have become less satisfied since airlines started filling the middle seats again. However, seat comfort has been steadily improving over the last five years, so at least airlines are making a concerted effort to address this common pain point.

Putting safety first

The fear of contracting COVID-19 kept many frequent passengers out of the sky. To ease these concerns, the “Big Four” – American Airlines, United, Delta, and Southwest – took strong safety measures, starting with “cleanliness.”

American Airlines partnered with Purell and Vanderbilt University Medical Center to start its Clean Commitment. United teamed up with Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic to forge its CleanPlus program. Delta launched CareStandard with the help of the Mayo Clinic and the Lysol manufacturers. The Southwest Promise features a partnership between the airline and the Stanford School of Medicine, as well as the use of high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters.

The airline industry also sponsored a study from Harvard’s School of Public Health. The report showed that the risk of getting COVID-19 from flying was much lower than shopping or eating out at a restaurant.

Although customer satisfaction with cabin and bathroom cleanliness drops slightly to an ACSI score of 78, the airlines’ attempts to make their passengers feel safe and secure most likely kept this decline minimal.

Not business as usual for the leisure crew

Before COVID-19, 32% of business passengers complained to the airline. Yet, they were relatively satisfied, with an ACSI score of 79. During the pandemic, however, that changed.

The percentage of complaining business passengers rose to 38%, but their satisfaction declined 10% to 71. This was not the case with leisure travelers.

Pre-pandemic, just 11% of these individuals complained, but they were far less satisfied at 65. Fast forward a year, and while 17% complained to the airline, their satisfaction level was much higher, up 6% to a score of 69.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly changed to make these passengers more content. Maybe they’re showing kindness to the airline, or perhaps, the airlines are grateful that people are traveling the skies again and want to express their appreciation. Whatever the reason, a satisfied customer is good for everyone.

Gradual improvement for airlines over time continues 

While airlines have taken specific steps to improve comfort and safety during the pandemic, the industry overall has been making positive strides over the last few years.

Since 2018, customer satisfaction with airlines has risen 4.1% to reach an all-time industry high. So, it’s not as if things weren’t heading in the right direction.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic presented unforeseeable challenges that threw the industry for a loop. And, with strict travel restrictions in the beginning and consumers remaining hesitant to fly once they were loosened, airlines could’ve easily buckled under the pressure. But they didn’t.

Since April 2020, the number of Americans passing through TSA checkpoints has slowly grown. Of course, while more people are traveling, airlines can’t get too cozy. They must continue making safety a top priority, while also maintaining the level of comfort passengers have grown accustomed to. If not, we could be looking at less friendly skies in the future.

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