Optimizing the Airline Passenger Experience

Putting Customer Experience First Often Seems Impossible in a Complex Real World Setting

July 14, 2011

With so many interdependent moving parts, priorities, and seemingly “out of our control” events (like bad weather and mechanical failures), it’s supremely difficult for airlines to deliver a great customer experience, yet there are ways to do it. This article looks at the experience airline passengers want as well as what the airlines are do to provide great customer experience that differentiates their brands.


Great customer experience is a noble goal. But, in many companies, it seems unattainable because so many things that adversely impact the customer experience are seemingly beyond your company’s control. The airline industry is a good case in point. There are so many interdependent moving parts, important priorities, tough challenges, and seemingly “out of our control” events (like bad weather and unexpected mechanical failures) that it’s supremely difficult to deliver a great customer experience.

Nevertheless, customer experience is a differentiator among airlines. We all have our favorite airlines, usually based on good or bad experiences we’ve had. Let’s look at examples of bad and good experiences and what customers really want. Then we will take a peek behind the scenes at how airlines juggle and optimize the hundreds and thousands of real-time operational decisions they make each day, and how big a role customer experience plays in those decisions.

Causes of Delay in U.S. Air Travel, May 2011

© 2011 U.S. Department of Transportation
Air Travel Consumer Report, July 2011
Table 10: Overall Causes of Delays

Illustration 1. Causes of Delay:

* Air Carrier Delay: The cause of the cancellation or delay was due to circumstances within the airline’s control (e.g. maintenance or crew problems, etc.).

* Extreme Weather Delay: Significant meteorological conditions (actual or forecasted) that, in the judgment of the carrier, delays or prevents the operation of a flight.

* National Aviation System Delay: Delays and cancellations attributable to the national aviation system refer to a broad set of conditions — non-extreme weather conditions, airport operations, heavy traffic volume, air traffic control, etc.

* Security Delay: Delays caused by evacuation of terminal or concourse, re-boarding of aircraft because of security breech, inoperative screening equipment and long lines in excess of 29 minutes at screening areas.

* Late Arriving Aircraft Delay: Previous flight with same aircraft arrived late which caused the present flight to depart late.

A “cancelled” flight is a flight that was not operated, but was in the carrier's computer reservation system within 7 days of the scheduled departure. A “diverted” flight is a flight which is operated from the scheduled origin point to a point other than the scheduled destination point in the carrier's published schedule.

Note: For additional airline-specific information, visit http://www.bts.gov


Good Days and Bad Days

We all know that in air travel there are routine experiences and terrible experiences. Usually it’s the unanticipated delays that cause the terrible experiences. But there are also many subtle differences in the routine flying experience that can have a big impact on which airlines we prefer to fly.

Customer Experience Differences on Two Routine Flights

Like most of you, I’m an experienced business traveler—good at anticipating problems and rolling with the punches, good at insulating myself from discomforts with good books, music, snacks, humor and forbearance. I don’t blame the airline/brand for the quality of the experience—particularly for things that are out of their control (like bad weather or surly security screeners). But sometimes you can’t help noticing that some airlines seem to do a much better job of anticipating and filling customers’ needs than others—not only during travel, but in the entire experience surrounding travel.

Here are two roughly parallel recent trips. Neither had disasters from which the airline had to recover. They were simply routine cross-country flights. The differences in the experiences were subtle, but important. Both airlines—United and JetBlue—offer roughly equivalent pricing, including the fact that both charge extra for food on board and for extra legroom, etc. With United, the extra charges are frequent and annoying—you’re presented with up-sells at every stage in your booking and check-in process. With JetBlue, the “even more” up-sell offers are less intrusive and not really necessary in order to enjoy a pleasant experience.

BAD: United/Continental Customer Flying from Washington Dulles to San Francisco

Washington Dulles is nobody’s favorite airport. It’s 45 minutes from downtown Washington D.C. with terrible traffic. There’s no convenient public transportation to and from the airport. Terminal D—the terminal used by United Airlines, which merged with Continental last year—is a typical impersonal, noisy place, with lots of room for improvement.

I wound up taking a cross-country flight from Dulles (IAD) to San Francisco because there were no other cross-country flights from any other airport in the DC area that met my time constraints (leave D.C. Sunday afternoon and arrive at SFO before 8 pm). From the time I booked a reservation to the time I arrived at my destination, weary and disgruntled—despite the fact that the flight was more or less on time—the customer experience was wearing (and that was a good day for United at Dulles)!

What were all the customer-unfriendly things I encountered along the way?

* Feeling “Nickeled and Dimed” During the Booking and Check-In Process. Every step of the way, I was offered the opportunity to pay more for legroom, for better choice of seats, for use of the “premium” security line, etc.

* Annoyance at Having to Fly Out of Dulles. Dulles is an inconvenient airport that has a reputation of having long check in and security lines.

* Confusion about Which Terminal/Airline I Needed to Use. The flight I was booked on was listed as both a Continental and a United flight, with different flight numbers. It was “operated by” United Airlines, but it was listed on my reservation as a Continental flight. I only avoided going to the wrong terminal by being vigilant.

* Disappointment that There Was No Quick Baggage Check Line. This was despite the promise of such on the boarding documents (which showed a picture of where to go for express baggage check-in if you already had a boarding pass). On the day I travelled, there was no such line. All passengers with bags to check were herded into the same identical very long line. Once you retyped your info into the kiosk and waited to receive a baggage claim check, you then had to take your bag to another line where you wait to hand it to the TSA baggage screener. Forty-five minutes later, I’m heading to the security line.

* Security “Fast Lane” Wasn’t. Having paid the $29 extra for “premier security line” so I could “breeze through security,” and getting instructions about where to go (leftmost end of the terminal) for the Premier Security line, I was dismayed and puzzled to find that there was no such line. There was only a single line to enter security screening. It turned out that this was the PRE-Security screening line at Dulles. It took 30 minutes to wind through to a set of stairs. Once you were allowed down the stairs, you could opt to join the Premier screening line vs. the non-Premier line. Both seemed equally long, however, I suspect ours moved a bit faster. Then, 35 minutes later, I emerge unscathed from security. Now we take a shuttle bus to our terminal. Another wait. Another cattle car.

* No Convenient Food Options in the Terminal. I arrive at terminal D 45 minutes before flight time. (Good thing I arrived at the airport 2.5 hours before my 5-hour flight!) I look around for a place to buy food for the plane ride since I know the onboard options are pricey and not likely to be very tasty. I discovered that the only options available were either sit down restaurants or places that had long lines of patrons who were ordering custom meals to go and waiting 15 minutes each for those meals to be prepared. There were no “grab and go” options of pre-prepared salads or sandwiches. The take-out places offered pre-prepared food options, but no “fast path” way to purchase them. You had to wait in line along with everyone who wanted to order a freshly prepared meal. (As it turned out, I could have saved myself the aggravation of purchasing food before boarding. The passenger next to me opted for the Asian Noodle “buy on board” meal and found it delicious and satisfying.)

* Expedited Boarding Wasn’t. Having paid extra for “early boarding,” I was dismayed to discover that “Seating 1” customers are actually the fifth group of customers to board (after first class, all of the premium and other awards customers, after people with disabilities, and of course, after families with kids. And, instead of calling all of the Seating 1 passengers first, the gate agents lumped Seating Groups 1, 2, and 3 together. So there was no reason to have paid extra at all! We all jostled for position at the same time.

* Lots of Turbulence En Route. On the plane, I was fortunate to have snagged an aisle seat, but not one with extra legroom. So I spent five hours sardine style. The flight was extremely turbulent. The pilot apologized, but we had our seat belts on for two and a half hours of the five-hour flight. (Why they couldn’t find a less turbulent flight route is still a mystery to me.)

* Baggage Arrived Reasonably Promptly. So this was a “non-problem.” My checked luggage arrived on the luggage carousel within about 20 minutes—the norm.

GOOD: JetBlue Customer Flying from Portland Maine thru JFK to San Francisco

I wound up taking a cross-country flight with a stop in New York because there were no direct flights between Portland, Maine and San Francisco. My choices were a layover in Chicago (on United) and a layover at JFK with JetBlue. I hate the JFK airport. I find it confusing and unpleasant. I am always upset that so many people’s first experience of the United States is arriving at JFK and trying to find their way around it. Travel delays in and out of New York’s airspace are often even worse than travelling through Chicago’s O’Hare airport (which can be pretty bad itself).

But, because I prefer to travel on JetBlue, I opted to take the more circuitous route and go through JFK.

Here are some of the ways that JetBlue turned that inconvenience into a pleasurable experience ...

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