by Dan Muse

Among industries that frustrate customers, few rival the airline sector. Of course, few industries rival air travel in terms of volume, risk, regulatory compliance and safety factors either. On a typical day, according to the Air Traffic Controllers Association, 28,537 commercial flights are in skies.

At peak travel times, like the week of Thanksgiving, the risk of delays and unhappy customers is even higher. Experts estimate that a record 28.5 million people will travel by air this year between Friday, Nov. 17 and Tuesday, Nov. 28.

Who do they trust to reliably get them to their destination?

To get a better sense of how consumers perceive the airline industry, as well as specific airlines, and to understand the tipping points that would cause a customer to switch providers, Sungard Availability Services worked with research firm Qualtrics to quantify U.S. consumer travel tendencies, beliefs about air travel providers, and actions resulting from problems consumers experienced while travelling.

The survey conducted included 514 respondents who detailed their experience and their level of customer satisfaction. More than half (56 per cent) travel at least once a year. While issues related to bad weather are a fact of life, 12 per cent of respondents said they had experienced issues that weren’t a result of severe or inclement weather, including an inability to secure a reservation, a delayed or cancelled flight and an inability to access flight status information via a website or mobile app.

Nearly half of the respondents (47 per cent) said that the issue was related to a computer system outage or technical glitch for the airline, such as the computer outage Delta experienced in January that grounded flights over many hours.

While some delays are inevitable, especially during the week of Thanksgiving, airlines’ responses to those issues get mixed grades. It’s laudable that 80 per cent of travellers received some level of customer support, whether it was a discount voucher, rebooking on a new flight or help booking a hotel room. However, the fact that nearly 20 per cent said, “I received no support from customer service and handled the issue on my own” is troubling. That’s not the way anyone wants to start or end a holiday break.

Pricing eases the pain of delayed and cancelled flights -- once

Customers experiencing a nonweather-related delay is not a death sentence for airlines. When asked “If you experienced a major issue with an airline, NOT related to severe or inclement weather that dramatically altered your travel plans, would you be less willing or likely to travel with that airline again?,” respondents were fairly evenly split: 32 per cent said yes, 34 per cent said no and 30 per cent said “I would only travel with that airline if the airfare was the least expensive option.”

However, when the problems appear to be more of a pattern, consumer sentiments change. Asked if they would travel with an airline that experienced many technical problems within a short timeframe that led to widespread delays and cancelling of flights, 65 percent said no. Interestingly, 17 per cent said they would still travel with the airline if was the least expensive option.

Perception is everything – despite outages

To determine the most reliable airlines, Sungard AS asked respondents to rank 11 U.S.-based airlines from most reliable to least reliable with a 1 being most reliable and 11 being least reliable. The airlines are Alaska Airlines, Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines, United Airlines and Virgin America. To rate the best and worst airlines, we looked at the airlines that received either a 1 or 2 as well as those that received a 10 or 11.

The top three airlines for reliability are Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines. The bottom three are Virgin America, Spirit Airlines and United Airlines. Virgin and Spirit are by far perceived as the least reliable with 278 and 250 10 or 11 rankings, respectively. Interestingly, United Airlines, despite being picked as 10 or 11 by 103 respondents (making it the 9th most unreliable airline), also came in at number 4 for most reliable with 140 votes for number 1 or 2. Customers either love or hate flying the Friendly Skies.

Outages don’t appear to have hurt the top-rated airlines. As our timelines show, Delta was prominent in outages in 2016 (and to date in 2017), yet earned the top spot. American and Southwest also were affected by outages and still finished in the top three.

The takeaway

Thanksgiving travel will spur countless stories about air travel delays, some due to weather, some due to volume, and some due to computer system outages. While overall satisfaction with air travel gets more bad press than good, and in many cases deservedly so, a few trends emerged. Customers will forgive travel delays but not a pattern of issues. Price cures a lot of ills. And while they gain more headlines due to their size, the larger airlines are still more trusted than smaller ones.

Dan Muse is a technology journalist and content consultant. He’s the former editor in chief of CIO.com. He has covered technology for three decades and held senior editorial positions with Ziff Davis, Jupitermedia, Disney Publishing, McGraw-Hill and Advance Digital.

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