Frequent fliers don't believe airline performance has improved, despite evidence

April 4, 2012

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - More than 53 percent of frequent fliers say that air travel has gotten worse for them in the past year despite statistics showing the industry performing at its all-time best.

Purdue University airline expert Erin Bowen said passengers' perception of their air travel experience has declined for four years, a period in which industry statistics have improved annually.

"Airlines are doing a poor job of conveying quality performance and improvements in areas such as on-time arrival rates to passengers," said Bowen, a professor of technology leadership and innovation. "Airlines like Southwest who push a service-oriented message continue to score highest in passenger friendliness for consumers."

If price is equal, customer service is the top factor in why surveyed passengers choose an airline. Efforts to keep prices down, such as Allegiant's decision to charge for carry-on luggage, can backfire.

"A la carte fees are the last thing they want. Almost one-third said they'd rather drive a car than be nickel and dimed to death," Bowen said. "The more frequently they travel, the less tolerant they are for these fees."

U.S. airline performance has been statistically documented for 22 years by the Airline Quality Rating, an annual report published by Brent Bowen at Purdue University and Dean Headley at Wichita State University. Over the past four years, more than 4,000 frequent flyers have also expressed their opinions in the AQR's separate customer survey.

In this year's frequent flier survey, passengers continue to tell researchers that customer service is their most important consideration in booking air travel, followed closely by arriving at their destinations on time.

"Southwest's customer service focus helps it score well with customers despite a mediocre statistical performance rating this year." Erin Bowen said. "They are even the favored airline with passengers who don't fly Southwest."

The survey seeks to capture passengers' perceptions and experiences with U.S. airlines in order to compare the results to the objective data used to build the AQR rankings. Erin Bowen said that in the extremely competitive airline industry, perception can trump reality. This year's survey revealed several key points, including:

* Only 11 percent of passengers thought the airlines improved.

* Most frequent fliers do not view the overall flight experience positively despite improvements in the four rated AQR categories: on-time arrival, complaints, denied boardings and baggage arrival.

* Southwest is consistently viewed as the most passenger-friendly airline by frequent fliers by a wide margin. More than one-third of frequent fliers said Southwest was the most passenger friendly of all the airlines ranked by the AQR, which is likely fueling Southwest's continued strong business performance. Southwest was the choice of nearly three times as many passengers as its closest competitor, JetBlue.

* The majority of frequent fliers report believing that airline price and fee increases are about more than just fuel cost offsets. This is part of the perception that the industry is not "transparent" and does not have a customer service focus.

* Regional airlines typically score at bottom of customer survey results.

Erin Bowen said that in the absence of a lobbying organization - such as AAA or AARP - that specifically serves air passengers, the Airline Quality Rating and its customer survey acts as a voice for passengers and a way to keep airlines accountable. She encourages even greater participation.

"There is a critical shortage of information from female frequent fliers," she said. "We know they are a significant portion of frequent travelers, and we want to encourage them to complete the survey this year."

Writer: Jim Schenke, 765-237-7296,

Source: Erin Bowen,

Related websites:
Purdue Aviation Technology

Purdue Technology Leadership and Innovation