Why Don’t Airlines Hear Us? A Passenger’s Lament


By Robert McGarvey


Why don’t airlines hear us?

Why don’t they pay attention to us?

Customer experience management firm Clarabridge recently set out to explore those questions in the context of the airline industry and the results – found in a  10 pp. report – are chilling.

Clarabridge explained its goal this way: “Clarabridge conducted an international study intended to uncover consumers’ true behaviors and expectations around air travel so that airlines can identify actionable takeaways for improving the customer experience.”

The method:  Survey more than 1200 in the US and UK. Respondents were 18 to 60. Clarabridge also analyzed 750,000 online comments, harvested at Facebook, Trip Advisor, et. al.

A starting point: 69% of US consumers have never submitted a complaint or feedback to an airline. The number climbs to 73% in the UK. Why? Because we don’t think the carriers listen More than one third of us say we don’t submit comments because airlines don’t listen. And 46% of US consumers say that when they have submitted complaints or feedback they haven’t gotten a response.

Read that last bit again. Half of us insist that when we’ve offered feedback all we’ve gotten in response is the sound of silence.

Wow. Why bother?

Next question: what matters more in booking a flight, price or staff attitude?  Attitude wins out according to Clarabridge. “38% of American travelers, and 41% of British travelers are in agreement that staff attitude is most important.” Just 35% say price is most important.

Clarabridge added: “85% of American travelers who would recommend a particular airline cite staff attitude as the number one reason why.”

This is fascinating. I have traveled for 40+ years and I have witnessed a steady deterioration in airline staff attitude. The overtly anti passenger gestures that recently have won so much press notice are, on the one hand, anomalous but on the other hand they really are not surprising.

Often passengers, at least in coach, seem to be viewed by airline staff as nuisances and burdens.

You just don’t see such rampant rudeness even in fast food restaurants.

Flashback to the mid 1970s when I began to fly with regularity and staff was genial, helpful, pleasant.

And it went downhill from there.

Honestly, however, I have to say that front cabin staff are substantially more genial even today. I don’t recall seeing the indifferent hostility that often seems common in coach. And that means good customer service can still happen on airplanes. That’s underlined in the Clarabridge research. “67% of American travelers say that they detect that crew members treat first class travelers better than other passengers, and nearly ¾ of UK consumers (72%) detect the same,” said Clarabridge.

I’ve personally flown both classes of carriage and can say that, definitely, everything is better up front.

I’d also acknowledge that airline management treat employees at airport desks and flight attendants terrible, and it’s the passengers who pay the price for this.

But when blame is to be heaped on people, shovel it on the bosses in corporate headquarters.

Clarabridge’s third observation is that carriers need to dramatically improve their digital feedback channels. Here’s why: “Of the customers who do frequently provide feedback, 42% and 46% (in the US and UK respectively) do so via email, and 13% and 11% by social media. Across both regions, more than half of all customers utilize digital tools in some way to comment on their travel experiences,” said Clarabridge.

Make it easier for us to offer feedback and we just may – and that feedback may be a goldmine of data for airlines as they seek to improve their competitiveness.

Airlines have much to gain if they can hear these research findings. That’s because Clarabridge reported: “A large portion of American travelers (31%) are agnostic when it comes to airline brand allegiance, and a quarter of consumers in the UK also report no specific airline loyalty.”

Clarabridge pointed out: “This presents a huge opportunity for airlines to stand out from competitors by truly listening to the Voice of the Customer. Airlines can get an edge on competition if they understand exactly what consumers want from their air travel experiences.”


Carrers need to hear us. And respond to us. They also need to treat their own employees better and encourage them to treat us better.

None of this is hard. None of this wasn’t commonplace on airplanes 40 years ago.

It’s easy. Carriers just have to acknowledge that the have a problem. And they need to know they can fix it.


4 thoughts on “Why Don’t Airlines Hear Us? A Passenger’s Lament”

  1. I am a million-mile (and more) Gold member of American’s AAdvantage program. I have been
    for (probably) 30 years. I have just discovered that it’s less expensive to book a normal JFK-LHR flight through BA than to book it using mileage through AA. So, why should I bother being a member of the AAdvantage program? When I joined, the idea was
    to get a FREE flight with your mileage.

  2. Part of it maybe that there are different ways to provide feedback. The feedback survey I get after a flight will not generate a response. If I dig through the website to the “contact us” section I usually get some kind of response.

  3. Thanks, Robert for the informative and timely post.

    A 40+ year road warrior with multi-million mile status and roughly 1,000 nights with my airline and hotel vendors of choice, I’m in furious agreement with your observation that treatment by the travel provider’s staff (be it airline or hotel) is a big influencer of re-purchases, especially where the traveler has the latitude to call the shots. I dare say that if the folks who promulgate and enforce corporate travel policies were required to travel on a regular basis, that would be even more the case. And yes, airline execs (actually all of us, especially the guys:-) need to work on our listening skills.

    As a tip for those who are just beginning a travel-heavy career, or perhaps have become a little grumpy over the years, it’s worth remembering that giving deserved shout-outs to individuals for excellent service often benefits both the employee who provided the service as well as the traveler. I have no doubt that some of the extra courtesy I’ve received over the years has in part been due to calling the C-suite’s attention to extra effort by their employee, and, as importantly, being patient with a front-line staffer when the wheels are coming off.

  4. I agree 200% about the decline in airline service/personnel. But although my hotel nights likely number only a few hundred, I’ve generally found hotel staff to be better than their airline brethren/methren. It may be luck of the draw, but I suspect that some of it may have to do with the fact that most hotel interactions are one-on-one and, at the moment, that staffer is dealing with just me, rather than 100-300 sardines. Add to that the fact that I usually strike up conversation and, regardless of the level of greeting I receive, start my end with an upbeat tone. Sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but as the old saying goes, I definitely catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

    Of course, the situation improves dramatically with foreign carriers and hotels. I cringe when I think about visitors who come to America and are greeted with such indifference and contempt. We should be better than this.

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