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November 17, 2021

Fly the (un)friendly skies? How airlines may have reversed course with customers

David Vanamburg

It wasn’t too long ago that we were singing airlines’ praises.

At a time when the industry saw revenue decline and passengers become more averse to fly because of COVID-19 (even when travel restrictions loosened up), airlines adapted, finding ways to successfully navigate the murky weather and stay in the good graces of their customers.

Airlines were the only travel industry to enjoy customer satisfaction improvements, according to our most recent Travel Report, rising 1.3% to an all-time high ACSI score of 76 (out of 100). They took strong safety precautions – making cabin “cleanliness” a main priority – and even blocked off middle seats for extended periods (which aided in enforcing social distancing, while also enhancing seat comfort, up 1% to 73).

However, they say, “All good things must come to an end.” Given recent events, airlines may soon find themselves facing a satisfaction problem.

Cancellations becoming commonplace

Over the course of five days in August, Spirit Airlines canceled over 1,700 flights because of bad weather (toward the end of July) and staff shortages, impacting “tens or hundreds of thousands” of passengers. According to the airline, more than 2,800 flights were canceled over an 11-day span, resulting in $50 million in lost revenue.

But cancellations weren’t limited to Spirit.

Between Oct. 8 and Oct. 13, Southwest canceled 1,800 flights because of a mixture of air traffic control troubles, poor weather, and staffing problems. Later in the month, American Airlines canceled more than 2,300 flights. According to the airline, most of the cancellations resulted from, you guessed it, crew shortages.

If these cancellations and disruptions were infrequent occurrences, passengers – while understandably annoyed in the moment – may be more forgiving in the long run. But that doesn’t appear to be the case.

More individuals are looking to travel again, and airlines haven’t been prepared to handle the surge. With the holidays fast approaching, this isn’t exactly the time to be leaving passengers on standby – or worse, grounded.

Remember what we said about happy employees …

The crux of the issue boils down to staff shortfalls. But this shouldn’t be that surprising.

For months, airlines asked employees to take buyouts, leaves of absences, or early retirements. It was either that or face possible furloughs. Many employees didn’t take the chance.

Almost 17,000 Southwest employees took buyouts or extended leaves of absence. At Delta, 2,235 pilots signed up for early retirements, which offers them partial pay for up to three years and extended health insurance. This comes after the airline had initially proposed a 15% reduction to pilots’ minimum pay to prevent furloughs for a year.

Now, as air travel ramps up, airlines are struggling to get their staffing in order, and passengers are getting the short end of the stick. To avoid more cancellations, airlines are now trying to entice their employees with additional benefits.

American Airlines is giving flight attendants the chance to earn triple their pay for holiday trips if they have perfect attendance through early January. The airline also said that flight attendants and reserve crew members who work during peak-period trips will receive time and a half. Southwest did the same thing over the summer, offering flight attendants and ground and cargo operations workers double pay for picking up shifts over Independence Day weekend.

Many airline workers, however, aren’t eager to return to work – especially after federal vaccine mandates, which includes airlines, were announced. Of course, there’s a strong likelihood that not all airline staff will be vaccinated this holiday season. A fact that could create discomfort for many travelers.

As we’ve said before, there is a genuine link between employee and customer satisfaction. If your employees are happy, this usually means your customers will be more satisfied. This holiday season, we don’t know which way airline employees will be leaning. And that leaves the state of customer satisfaction pretty much up in the air.

Home for the holidays?

The holidays looked a little bit different over the last 18 months, as many family get-togethers were orchestrated through screens or other means of communication.

Now, in-person events are picking up and the opportunity to spend the season with friends, family, and loved ones is here for the taking – if those who need flights get them, that is.

Despite improving customer satisfaction during the pandemic, the airline industry’s barrage of mass cancellations and disruptions over the past few months is testing the patience of passengers, potentially destroying any good will it built up lately.

Airline staff shortages could become the latest wrench thrown into holiday plans. And, even if not, who’s to say these workers will provide the sort of holiday cheer required to keep customers satisfied? We’ll know soon enough.

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