North American airlines entered 2020 with some of their highest customer satisfaction scores – the core values that drove that fulfilment will be even more important as the industry plots its recovery

“Airlines who make their customer experience a priority will reap the benefits in profits and reputation,” says consumer insights, advisory services and data and analytics specialist JD Power in the latest edition of its North America Airline Satisfaction Study. At a time that trust and transparency are probably two of the main drivers in demand, customer satisfaction needs to be at the top of the list in airlines’ ‘new normal’ business strategies.

We may be at a time that every passenger is a citizen journalist and every mishap or break in the customer journey train – however small – could quickly trend on social media channels, but North American airlines actually headed into 2020 with some of the highest customer satisfaction scores ever recorded.

This had mainly been driven by significant investments in product and services – newer generation aircraft, improved in-flight entertainment and onboard service and a better focus on the needs of the passenger.

As JD Power’s 2020 North America Airline Satisfaction Study highlights, many of the core values that drove standout passenger experiences in this pre-pandemic environment will be even more important as the industry plots its recovery. Specifically, the industry will “need to focus on restoring confidence, while continuing to improve on the operational side,” it explains.

The publication, now in its 16th year, measures and ranks passenger satisfaction among business and leisure travellers of the major airline carriers in North America looking at the entire air travel experience, from reservation to baggage retrieval, based on a recent flight experience.

The study is continuously fielded throughout the year and measures short flights and long flights separately as service levels and aircraft factors “significantly affect passenger evaluations”. This latest research is based on responses from over 10,000 passengers between Apr-2019 and Mar-2020.

The model measures passenger satisfaction with airline carriers based on performance in seven factors: reservation, check-in, boarding, baggage, aircraft, flight crew, in-flight services, costs & fees. The latest edition also includes expanded coverage of airline lounges, amenities, boarding, baggage, food & beverage, in-flight entertainment plus connectivity.

“Airline success in the post-Covid-19 era will hinge on a combination of building consumer confidence and operational flexibility with changing schedules and routes,” says Michael Taylor, travel intelligence lead at JD Power. “Airlines have a tremendous reputation for safety. That will be even more critical as passengers look to airlines for detailed and specific information about what’s being done to keep them safe.”

The latest research highlights how value is a key differentiator for the highest-performing airlines. When it comes to customer perception of value for money the highest-performing airline rates 6.33 (on a 7-point scale) versus an industry average of 5.68, a key advantage in the industry recovery stage.

As will how airlines will protect consumers. Additional JD Power research conducted in Apr-2020 showed the two most important actions leisure travellers felt that airlines and hotels could take to make them feel safer comprised informing travellers of specific cleaning/sanitisation actions they are taking (38%) and provide daily updates on the state of the pandemic in the area they will be visiting (37%).

Improving staff scores will play an important role in recovery, highlights the report. Passenger satisfaction scores related to courtesy/friendliness of crew and staff knowledge have been improving consistently during the past five years and these frontline employees will play a vital role in delivering passenger safety information and reassuring passengers of the steps any company is taking to reduce exposure to Covid-19.

But, behind these requirements it is essential that businesses get the basics right. The most common reasons passengers cite for selecting an airline, according to the study, are that it offers a direct flight (55%); the passenger had a good past experience with that airline (47%); and the passenger is a rewards programme member (42%). The most commonly cited reason given for not selecting a preferred airline is price (40%).

With a range of data there are numerous insights into each airlines’ performance, but it is the same four airlines that top the performance levels, each delivering a better than average score across both short- and long-distance operations.

The standout information is that for longer-distance flights Southwest Airlines ranked the highest in customer satisfaction, with a score of 826 (on a 1,000-point scale). JetBlue Airways (823) was ranked second and Delta Air Lines (810) third. For shorter-distance flights it was Southwest (839) and JetBlue (833) again heading the rankings with Alaska Airlines (828) securing the final podium position.

CHART – When it comes to short-haul flying in North America, Southwest has the highest satisfaction, WestJet leads in Canada and United falls a long way behind the other US majorsSource: JD Power 2020 North American Airline Satisfaction Study