Airline Customer Service: Marketing Research

Executive Summary

Surprisingly the low-cost carriers with good customer care services were attracting more younger travelers when compared to full-service airlines. This has major impact on revenue generation. Because the younger groups travel more for non-business purposes including friends / family to/from places of education. Most of the time the parents, actually, finance the travel. In one of the surveys conducted to know the difference between perceptions on the long haul full-service carriers and the low-cost carriers it was very clear that the older passengers generally preferred the full-service carriers.

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This finding has great significance for most carriers since they will know the genesis of passenger misbehaviors in most carriers, something that has a direct impact on the revenue models for the low-cost carriers. But the low-cost carriers have impacted the way the full-service carriers operate. It is thanks to the low-cost providers that the full-service providers have off late begun to offer discounts and those too substantial discounts on the one-way tickets. This was thanks to the usage of internet technology that there was a substantial reduction in the cost of the tickets.

It is also found in some surveys that the full-service providers carried more business travelers when compared to the low-cost carriers of the type of customer care services provided. One of the other significant differences that play a deciding role between the choice of full-service provider and the low-cost provider is the fact that on low-cost airlines passengers only fly point to point. So even if it is the same aircraft preceding the next destination of the passenger is forced to disembark, and go through the admission process all over again to the full.

One other key factor in perception difference is the fact that the full-service providers provide all kinds of passenger facilities at the airports including reserved lounges, complimentary drinks etc. According to Jain (2000) If a passenger is booked on a full-service carrier and the flight is delayed for some reason then the passengers are accommodated at a premium hotel for the delayed time period and maybe even overnight which includes food charges also. All this adds to the cost of operations of the full-service providers. In case of a low-cost carrier if the flight is delayed beyond a certain period the passenger is simply offered a refund. This is part of the terms of reference while purchasing the ticket with the low-cost carriers.

An interesting find from one of the many surveys conducted on the perceived difference between the full-service carriers and the low-cost carriers is the cross price elasticity of demand between the low-cost carriers and the full-service carriers. Only a very small double-digit percentage of low-cost carriers’ passengers remained loyal at any price level.

One really very significant observation on most carriers is the question of safety procedures during travel. By the on-flight conditions and the rush the staff seems to be in when dispatching the flights one could wrongly come to a conclusion that the safety procedures are being compromised. This is a very serious allegation that is faced by many low-cost carriers, which is stiffly contested by the low-cost carriers. Also there is no data to indicate that low-cost carriers have significantly reduced their focus on safety. On the contrary they claim that travel on low-cost carriers is safer. Both the arguments do not have any substantiated backing and data for the arguments put forth argues O’Connell (2007).

Introduction

The airline customer service industry is currently facing problems. Often we read from papers passenger complaints about missed flights, very long delays and flight cancellation. This is among the untold problems which are facing domestic and international airlines. In most cases flight cancellations and delays are expected to be due to bad weather conditions or because of safety reasons but there are unexplained and strange delays that inconvenience and annoy passengers. There are circumstances where passengers complain of cramped spaces, poor attention and in-efficient in-flight services which imply that they are not satisfied. The origin of this problem started when cheap airlines started to compete with big and traditional airlines in the 21st century. This crisis further worsened when the costs of crude in the international market becomes unpredictable, causing airline companies to resort to cost-saving measures. The interest of most companies focused on maximizing profits than on customer care services. Comfort and luxury in flying gave way to the bare necessities as airline companies combat cheap fares and high operational costs. Some of the cheap airlines do not even think that their duties go beyond delivering the passengers safely to their destinations wrote Segal (2009).

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The impact of the high competition and higher operational costs resulted in other changes in the industry. Because of these changes, Airline personnel who were used to high wages and good benefits saw massive layoffs and big cuts on their paychecks. Many fringe benefits were removed, resulting in airline personnel’s dissatisfaction. Consequently, passengers began to experience a decline in customer service as many airline personnel who were affected showed in how they treat their customers. Several complaints of rude and impolite flight attendants were reported by customers. Even ground personnel do not provide adequate information to passengers when there are problems concerning their flights. The ultimate outcome of the airline industry’s decline in customer services is what is known as “air rage” according to McCuen (2000).

Problem Definition

The airline industry is facing a lot of problems. The dissatisfaction of passengers from the services that they receive from the flight attendants and their negative behaviors toward the same attendants implies that there is a need to carry out marketing research on this topic. Airline passengers have encountered several problems and inconveniences while flying which include cramped spaces, delays, flight cancellations, lost luggage and misplacement of passenger belongings. Sometimes they come across as rude and irrespective employees who care less about them. Even there are reported cases that ground personnel does not provide enough information about the problems concerning the flights to their customers. Under normal circumstances, passengers are customers who require good care and understanding so that the company can maintain them. Because of this reported cases, this industry has experienced customer decline.

In the recent past, the airline passengers have become very rude to their flight attendants making them retaliate against their behavior. The front line employees have tried their best to provide quality services but all they receive is insult from angry passengers. The passenger’s misbehavior has worsened as customer service has declined. Those passengers who are naturally rude take advantage of abusing innocent flight attendants onboard and even in airlines. Airline personnel is the major representatives of airline companies forcing them to endure these irrespective and unappreciative clients to maintain the market share of those companies. Therefore in this situation they choose to handle them professional or sue them in the court of law.

The main objective of this paper is to argue that airline passengers have valid reasons to get annoyed because of the bad experiences they have come across. But taking out their anger and frustration on flight attendants without bias is unjustifiable. This is because there are many competitors in the market who are making the best out of the bad situation and they have qualified personnel who know how to handle every situation. The decline in customer service does not guarantee the passengers to be rude and misbehave. This paper will especially discuss the reasons why passenger’s misbehaviors and rudeness are unacceptable to the civilized society, and it will further discuss the trend in the airline industry that has contributed to poor customer services in many companies. Lastly, the paper will discuss the unacceptable behaviors of airline passengers.

Research Methods and Limitations

The research question that this study seeks to answer is as follows: Passenger Misbehavior in relation to airline customer service and improvement

Objectives

To answer the principal research question of this study, the research objectives identified consist of:

  • To understand the effects of customer services in the commercial airlines and cargo operators, and the resultant passenger behavior through a review of existing literature.
  • To collect and analyze data related to the effects of customer care using the customers’ demographic profile of age, gender, ethnic background, and misbehavior with a view to quantifying the differentials found.
  • To compare the experiences of different customers about different airlines to understand differences along with multiple demographic categories.
  • To arrive at a set of recommendations for airline and cargo operators on customer care management to lower potential passenger misbehavior.

Research Methodology

The primary research proposes to generate qualitative as well as quantitative data. According to Brannen (in Ritchie & Lewis, 2003, p. 38), it is clear that the combination of qualitative and quantitative research approaches may lead to complexities, because the results need to be analyzed and reviewed from qualitative and quantitative angles. Both these research approaches could be combined to achieve better results. In addition, the combination of both these approaches may also bring better outcomes because both these methods provide “a distinctive kind of evidence” (Ritchie & Lewis, 2003, pg. 38). Punch (1998 in Ritchie & Lewis, 2003) believes that these two research strategies help each other.

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A careful look at the contemporary world of aviation business shows that most passengers in some airlines complain about customer services of airline if it is poor. In addition, to get their response to questions related to customer care services perceptions at the beginning and end of a flight is most likely to be subjective and they are likely to give a subjective score to the customer service satisfaction levels especially because they would not like to admit to true satisfaction. The biggest difficulty in this research will be to get the passengers to agree to interviews immediately before or after a long flight. Getting the cooperation of passengers can help but the responses from the passengers are likely to become even more guarded if this path is chosen. This approach may cause skewness in the results as respondents use this platform to air grievances. Analysis will need to control for this distortion.

Among qualitative techniques, short structured interviews will help in data collection. These interviews will let the researcher collect opinions and perceptions of participants. In addition, interviews are beneficial when the researcher wants to expose and/or explore motivations, decisions, attitudes, beliefs, and influences (Ritchie & Lewis, 2003, p.58). In addition, interviews have been selected as methodology because interviews are better in the following circumstances: detailed questioning, revealing unknown reasons, interviewing professionals, and scheduling (Malhotra, 2007, p.161).

The sample selection will use non-probability sampling approach, purposive sampling will be done, and where the interviewees will be chosen only if they fulfill certain predefined criteria as probability sampling is inappropriate for qualitative studies in most of the cases (Ritchie & Lewis, 2003, p.78).

A review of previous research and literature will assist the design of relevant interview questions and structure. The target sample size for the interviews is around 20 customers in each of four or five demographic segments identified after initial research. Small sample sizes are usual when doing qualitative research (Ritchie & Lewis, 2003, p.83). Too large a sample size will increase redundancy of findings. Therefore, it is felt that 80-100 interviews should be sufficient for this research.

All interviews will be recorded face-to-face interviews. This is to ensure that the data collection is verifiable for transcription and the interviewers do not add subjective tones later.

The quantitative approach will use a survey method, as surveys are good at describing the characteristics of a large population. The design of an all-inclusive questionnaire will use a review of existing literature and earlier reported surveys. Testing with acknowledged experts in the field as well as a few pilots in each category will precede modification before final application. Questions asked in the survey will directly link with the research question. This will ensure that the research is internally valid. This questionnaire will consist of some close-ended questions as well as a few open-ended ones. The open-ended questions will enable respondents to express their views/suggestions about the topic. For the survey, a very large sample consisting of approximately 1200-1500 pilots will be approached to fill in their responses to the questionnaire. Given that the response is not likely to be much higher than 25-30% it is planned to have about 300 valid responses at the end of the exercise.

Ethical Considerations

As far as ethical issues are concerned, particular significance will be given to the practices that ensure application of the concepts of “informed consent” and “anonymity and confidentiality”. Both interviews and questionnaire-based surveys will be carried out in this way. The pilots participating will be informed about the nature and purpose of the research. They will also be told how the researcher intends to use the data collected from them (Ritchie & Lewis, 2003). Also the respondents will be assured that people outside the research team will not learn about their individual personalities.

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Limitation

This research requires substantial funds for gathering primary data and analysis. For generating significant data for this research, a large response base across several demographic descriptors is essential. However, this requirement can be met by finding a sponsor within the commercial aviation field.

Research Findings

Reasons for the decline in airline customer services

The airline industry was affected by deregulation of airline companies in the 1980s. Deregulation of companies is good to a given level but it also brings some evils. In the past, companies used to with each other based on the quality of services they offered but with deregulation, competition is among carriers.

Flight attendants were paid very well so that they would be motivated in providing the best service. As a result the price of excellent service was passed on to passengers. Traveling charges rose as airline personnel demanded bigger compensations under their labor contracts (ABC News, 2006). Since the economy was performing well, this trend was acceptable to everybody. In the past few years people were price-conscious of the prices because of the worsening economy which resulted in a new kind of airline carrier.

The formation of smaller but cheaper airlines slowly affected customer service. Cheap flights meant lesser services. Coming from budget companies, passengers seem to expect it. Passengers were further influenced when big airlines like U.S. Airways imposed changes on their in-flight services. Passengers did not take into consideration the lowering of fares as a consequence customer service was reduced.

As bigger and luxurious carriers wanted to maintain their market share, they had to compete on the price level at some point. They could lose market shares if the smaller airlines are left to fly customers at comparatively lower prices. Although these companies were faced with price competition, the rising jet fuel was also affecting them. The companies realized that it was not possible to maintain their market share by simply lowering prices. They turned to their workers in finding the solution to the problem. Pay cuts were exercised and some even terminated thousands of employees. The well-paid airline workers were now faced with a crisis of losing their jobs if they refused to compromise their pay. This reduced their motivation to work as result of customer service being reduced.

The creasing losses forced big carriers to file for reconstruction under chapter 11 while other merged. As a consequence, there was a reduction in workforce with lower wages and lesser benefits. An industry that once was challenging and full of fun to work for ceased to be one. This was a nightmare to many especially those who lost employment in the process. The workers were further hit by the removal of their pension plans that would have secured their old age. The employees got disappointed and more offended since they realized that the workload has increased and their benefits have been removed. Employee morale became very low, which could manifest inefficiencies in customer service (Bailey, 2007).

Further the impact of the airline reorganization led to the reduction of services during the flight. For instance, instead of getting served with unlimited wine during the flight, the passenger will be refused once the supply for that particular route has been consumed. These little changes are all designed to make the airlines save on operational costs and continue flying to as many routes as possible.

In addition, mergers among companies led to the creation of new connections through consolidation of flights in the airline industry. These changes among big networks, resulted in delays as airlines rationalized their operations. This affected the passengers since they were not given enough information about the changes and causes of the delays. As result, passengers reacted to poor services badly as they thought that they were not well attended to.

Customer Service Training for Airline Employees

Airline passengers who have complained of dissatisfaction wonder if the airline industries still incur costs in training their employees. They question their training with the services they provide. But passengers should understand that there are other contributing factors which they come across that make it impossible to offer quality services (Jobber and Fahy, 2006).

For instance, let us consider the recruitment process of the cabin crew as a part of the workforce in the airline industry. Here the cabin crew hiree is trained on different aspects like airline procedures, safety precautions, airline operations, service routines and customer services. Customer service for a flight attendant means never snapping on drunken passengers or excessively demanding passengers (Barry, 2007, p. 45). In this case the flight attendant is expected to remain calm and maintain her poise while doing all the work entailed during the flight. A flight attendant’s work may seem easy for the passengers in cases like this. But this is because these people are trained to do their work well and make it appear that the labor has been effortless.

Flight attendants are expected to maintain their appearances immaculate even though there are other things to worry about like bad weather, problem passengers, delayed flights, and foodservice. Delays do affect flight attendants but they cannot afford to look tired. When they are canceling angry and frustrated passengers because of delays, passengers often forget that they are enduring the delay because they can wish to take a break and rest. Even the well-trained attendants could come to a breaking point in having to deal with ceaseless whining. There are circumstances that flight attendants must also deal with increased workloads due to layoffs, lower pay, and the duty of explaining to enraged passengers every time a flight is delayed or canceled (Bailey, 2007).

Examples of Unruly Passenger Behavior

Unruly passenger behavior can be brought on by many factors; among them are delays and unannounced cancellations. There are many causes of extreme misbehavior and they include; consumption of alcohol, tiredness, children, aircraft legroom, and security checks on the ground. The passenger’s speech and manners will portray his behavior. Mad passengers have rudeness in their speech and bad manners. The most common misbehavior that flight attendants come across is drunkenness. Most people lack discipline on where and how much to drink. Sometimes they know the effects of alcohol but they go ahead and drink in excess. A drunken passenger loses his sanity and does ugly things like; getting loud arguments with other passengers, vomit or urinate on the aisles, shout at both the passenger and the crew, and became generally abusive in speech and manner. The flight attendants are expected to exercise maximum patience when dealing with a drunken passengers but they should take necessary steps to restrain them if they exceed. There are those passengers who cause trouble while onboard the plane. Others would be bringing their own personal stress while traveling, which can greatly contribute to their behavior towards airline personnel (Embling, 2009).

There are those unruly behaviors that are simply irritating or make others feel disgusted because they want to stay quiet. For instance, there are some women who would give themselves a pedicure during the flight and trim their nails in the process. Some mothers will change their babies’ diapers right in their seats or others will pluck eyebrows. These types of behavior occur but are not associated with flaws in airline customer service. Yet, people do these things because for some reason, they feel at home within the confines of the plane (Todd, 2009).

Conclusions and Recommendations

The airline industry is currently facing a crisis. Passengers normally complain because they are not satisfied with the services they receive. Airline passengers experience too many inconveniences when flying, which can include delays, cancellations, and cramped spaces. There are cases where airline employees treat the customers without care or respect. There are also times when luggage becomes lost or sent to a wrong location. On the other side are the flight attendants who have been schooled not only in safety measures but more importantly on providing for the needs of their customers. In recent years, several factors have combined together to result in more and more flight attendants becoming disgruntled, overworked, and with lower wages and benefits.

When the passenger misbehavior collides with the bad response of the flight attendant, the result is usually a tense situation that can only be allayed when one side would back down. Usually, it is expected that the flight attendants have to remember that they are airline workers and the needs of their passengers must be met first before their own. Passengers are aware of this and as such they assume that since their interest comes first then it is acceptable for them to become unruly when their demands are not met. Flight attendants have to smile and remain polite in the face of rudeness since it is possible that the rude customer would make it an issue against the worker instead of something else.

The training that flight attendants get enables them to handle different types of passengers. But currently they have been affected since their benefits and pension plans have been removed making their pay to be lower than in the past. In addition, the workload has increased because the companies have reduced workers so as to decrease operational costs. This has greatly contributed to provision of poor services since they are not motivated to work. This problem was facilitated by the establishment of deregulation and the subsequent rise of low-cost airlines; flight attendants continue to face more and more challenges. Because of this, their numbers were greatly reduced while wages and benefits are cut. The process brought a lot of fear to the workforce since they felt that their job security is under threat.

Airline passengers are allowed to drink their wine as much as they want to be provided they brought it. This lenient discipline encourages the hard drinkers to push their limits. Consequently this misbehavior may cause endless arguments, embarrassment within themselves, annoyance with other passengers, and possibly getting banned from future flights with the same airline. For other passengers who do not drink but do other nasty things while onboard a plane, flight attendants would generally ignore them so long as they do not become troublesome to other passengers. Flight attendants are expected to exercise high patience to rude passengers but if they react with indifference to these excessive demanders, there will be conflicting situations between them (Irish Times, 1996).

Airline passengers should exercise their reason and display good manners since they all come from civilized cultures. There is no excuse for people taking it out on flight attendants or any other airline worker because their flights are delayed or there is no food provided during the flight. It is unfair for people to mistreat flight attendants who may not even know themselves what has caused the changes in the airline’s services. Passengers should also take the time to educate themselves and learn about the airline industry instead of demand for services that the carriers cannot provide anymore. Ignorance can lead people to display arrogance and bad behavior. Passengers should also take the time to call the airline before leaving their homes or offices whether there would be expected delays or cancellations.

List of References

ABC, 2006, Why airline service suffers: Unhappy People Giving Unhappy Service. ABC News. Web.

Bailey, J, 2007, December 22). Fliers fed up? Airline employees feel the same. The New York Times. Web.

Barry, KM, 2007, Femininity in Flight. Duke University Press, New York

Embling, D, 2009, April 30). Fighting the rise of “air rage.” BBC News. Web.

Irish Times, 1996, Ryan Air. s.l. : Irish Times.

Jain, SC, 2000, International Marketing Management. CBS Publishers and Distributors, Delhi.

Jobber, D & Fahy, J 2006, Foundations of marketing. McGraw-Hill Higher Education, New York.

Malhotra, NK, 2007, Marketing Research: An Applied Orientation, 5th Ed. Upper Saddle River, Prentice Hall, New Jersey.

McCuen, B, 2000, Are airliners to blame for passenger “air rage?” Aviation Safety Reporting System, Association of Flight Attendants. Web.

O’Connell,J. & Williams, G, 2007, Passengers’ perceptions of low cost airlines and full service carriers – A case study involving Ryanair, Aer Lingus, Air Asia and Malaysia Airlines. Air Transport Group, College of Aeronautics. Web.

Ritchie, J. & Lewis, J, 2003, Qualitative Research Practice. London: Sage Publications.

Segal, D, 2009, Don’t come crying to this airline. The New York Times. Web.

Todd, G, 2009, Stinky situation: Odors can be more intense at 35,000 feet. Daily Herald. Web.

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