There were almost 83 million passengers on U.S. airlines and foreign airlines serving the U.S. in December 2018. This means you can expect crowded airports this holiday season. And with packed airplanes and long lines, you can also expect some unsatisfied customers.
In fact, the majority of consumers are disappointed by airline customer service, according to a ValuePenguin survey. Almost 56% of Americans who flew on an airplane in the past 12 months said airline customer service is declining.
The survey also revealed that millennials are more likely to issue a formal complaint than older generations. Factor in the airport craziness as the holidays approach, and airlines have their work cut out for them.
- Millennials are leading complainers: Overall, millennials feel more negatively about airline customer service than baby boomers, and they’re more than twice as likely to have issued a formal complaint.
- Flyers are speaking out: Almost 45% of Americans who flew in the past year said they issued a complaint against an airline.
- Some airlines are perceived worse than others: When discussing specific airlines’ customer service, respondents rated American Airlines and Southwest as the best and Spirit Airlines as the worst.
- Customer satisfaction is going down: Even though more than 96% of respondents were at least somewhat satisfied by their most recent flight, nearly 56% of flyers said they think airline customer service is declining. Millennials and men felt the strongest about this.
- Flyers expect the worst from budget airlines: The mantra “you get what you pay for” is something that travelers believe. Even still, 36% of millennials felt that budget airlines treat passengers poorly, and that they have a right to complain.
Is airline customer service declining?
Based on the survey, we already know that almost 56% of respondents who flew on an airplane in the past 12 months think airline customer service is getting worse.
That perception could be in part due to personal horror stories, as well as some headline-making airline crises that seem to make the news regularly. From tech glitches and long security lines to canceled flights and lost luggage, the frustration is real.
Here are the flying issues that bothered our respondents the most.
Millennials more likely to complain
Millennials (54%) are more likely than Generation Xers (37%) and baby boomers (24%) to complain about airline service issues. They’re also more likely to say customer service is declining (59% vs. 54% vs. 52%, respectively).
Airing a complaint on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and LinkedIn) is more common, and how companies respond can have a big impact, especially for younger consumers. According to a Harris Poll commissioned by TELUS International, 72% of millennials (versus 47% of Americans older than 45) said they would be more loyal to a brand that responds to social media feedback.
Another possible explanation might be that 78% of baby boomers are members of an airline loyalty program, according to AARP research, which can help improve their flight experience. No matter the reason, it’s clear that airlines have some work to do if they want to appease customers.
The airlines most loved — and hated — by travelers
Some domestic airlines have a better reputation when it comes to customer service than others.
At the top of the list for worst experiences were:
- Spirit Airlines: 18%
- United Airlines: 12%
- American Airlines: 12%
- Delta: 11%
The fact that United made both lists shows that opinions will vary across the board.
The class divide
About half of survey respondents think main cabin passengers are treated poorly compared to those flying first class, and 51% think the same can be said for how basic economy flyers are treated in comparison to those in the main cabin.
How to improve your flight experience
Besides lodging complaints and hoping for a satisfactory resolution, travelers can try a few proactive moves to try to make their flight experiences better.
Open an airline credit card
Benefits such as upgrades, airport lounge access, priority boarding and discounts can be common on most airline credit cards. These can help ease some of the stress that goes along with air travel. An airline credit card can also help you earn frequent flyer points and rewards that can lead to free flights and airline loyalty status, which can mean even better perks.
Do your research
Many travelers might go with a budget airline or an inconvenient airport or travel time to save a few bucks, but that can translate into a negative experience. Ask around to find out what the reputation is of airlines you’re considering and what days or times might improve your odds of getting out of town with fewer delays.
Gate agents and flight attendants have stressful jobs, especially when delays happen and people get testy. A friendly demeanor can go a long way toward getting more favorable service.
Consider an upgrade
If flight experience is important to you, saving up for an upgrade might be worth it. A higher flight class usually means more attentive service and better extras. For instance, Delta first-class flyers get added legroom, priority boarding, a dedicated flight attendant and expedited baggage handling.
The bottom line
Air travel can be stressful enough — especially during the busy holiday seasons — but when poor customer service goes along with it, it can leave passengers feeling extra frustrated.
Doing research, paying for upgrades or mentally preparing yourself — among other things — could help you to get through whatever comes your way.
If things still go awry, be sure to understand your passenger rights. If you have a legitimate complaint, submit it in a timely manner.
ValuePenguin commissioned Qualtrics to conduct an online survey of 657 Americans who flew on an airplane in the past 12 months. The survey was fielded Oct. 1-3 and Nov. 18-19, 2019.