Airlines are starting to show some new consumer love

Photo (c) LIVINUS - Getty Images

Paying a little more for better customer service can have a huge payoff for both the airline and the passenger

In an era where the only thing airlines don’t charge passengers for is a visit to the bathroom, one airline has decided to add a little retro-style customer comfort to its persona.

Delta Air Lines has announced that, starting November 2019, it will greet Main Cabin passengers on its international flights with “Welcome Aboard” cocktails, then follow up with hot towel service and mix-and-match appetizer options and larger entrees.

Now, mind you, one pro-consumer change doesn’t guarantee an industry-wide shift, but ConsumerAffairs is starting to see more airlines making little changes that give the traveler more reasons to look forward to flying. 

Take United Airlines for instance. Earlier this year, United’s CEO Oscar Munoz was preaching to the consumer choir when he commented that flying has become so stressful that “by the time you sit on one of our aircraft ... you're just pissed at the world. Improving the flying experience won't ultimately depend on what coffee or cookie I give you.”

Munoz’ sentiments are widely shared if you look at recent satisfaction surveys, which show that the investment the major carriers -- Delta, United, American, Alaska -- are making toward customer satisfaction is paying off. 

It appears both United and Delta are taking those surveys to heart.

“This is about investing in every single customer who chooses Delta, no matter where they sit on the plane,” said Allison Ausband, Delta’s Senior Vice President of In-Flight Service. 

The “investment” Ausband is referring to is Delta’s overhaul of its Main Cabin experience. The airline claims that reinvention has increased customer satisfaction scores on the 700+ flights it tested the upgrade on.

And United? Its new “every customer, every flight, every day” mission statement is producing a windfall of passenger pluses -- everything from skin care products in its amenity kits to free DIRECTV on seatback monitors.

Why now?

No business is immune to consumer grievances being aired out on social media, and airlines wanting as many rating stars as possible might have a play in this.

“Differentiating factors for airlines in the U.S. seem to be shifting towards “soft products” such as customer experiences and reliability,” wrote Hemal Gosai in a post at AirlineGeeks. 

“Customers seem to care that they have a pleasant experience, and have no issue with airing their grievances instantaneously on social media.”

Gosai says the “glory days” of aviation where airlines seemed to fawn over its customers might be returning. “They were the glory days because airlines didn’t have to worry about fares, and instead went out of their way to offer a better product because that was the only real differentiating factor,” he said.

Does better service cost more?

Given the nickel-and-diming travelers have had to put up with over the last few years, it’s only natural to think that an airline would jack up the rate to pay for those hot towels and better snacks. However, the reality of that concern might be larger than the perception.

As an example, ConsumerAffairs plugged in a roundtrip flight from New York City to Paris on Delta’s booking site and found that a ticket in Delta’s Main Cabin would only set a consumer back about $80 more than a “basic” class ticket.

At the end of the day, charging $80 more for a lot better customer service is a small price both the airline and the customer might be willing to invest in.

“For today’s airlines, there’s no time to lose,” says customer personalization platform Boxever’s Dave O’Flanagan. “They need to reexamine their personalization strategy today as better customer experience through personalization drives more revenue, builds brand loyalty and, more importantly, helps to build trust and protect the airlines’ reputation!”

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