Mile-High Crabapples: Can We Quantify the Airline Industry's Incompetence?

NEW YORK (MainStreet)—Before boarding a trans-Atlantic flight recently, I held reasonable expectations for the eight-hour trip. I'd enjoy an ancient episode of a CBS comedy now in its 3,000th season, I'd nurse a glass of wine and I'd arrive jetlagged but in one piece (and probably on time).

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Seeing as the commercial airline industry has had 99 years to get things right, reliability seems like a very low bar, indeed.

The funny thing about reliability, though, is that it's as much about performance metrics as it is about consumer perception. Even if Airline X averages 79% on-time arrivals (a number the U.S. Department of Transportation publishes each month for all airlines) that factoid doesn't matter much to a disgruntled passenger who just had a terrible flight.

The annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR) for 2013, which was just released last month, offers a middle ground that marries metrics with anecdotal evidence by evaluating on-time boarding, denied boarding, mishandled baggage and 12 subsets of customer complaints to devise a single number that stands for the prior year's performance. 2012 showed a decline in "overall performance quality" over 2011, which is tied, unsurprisingly, to an increase in customer complaints: 1.43 per 100,000 passengers in 2012 over 1.19 per 100,000 passengers in 2011.

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Despite those trends, other indices see customer perceptions improving. The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), an independent economic indicator that looks at a range of industries, also tracks these sorts of figures for airlines. ACSI's report on the airline industry for 2013 is due out at the beginning of next month, but last year showed a 3.1% boost to 67 out of 100 in customer satisfaction.

O.K.: two major industry indices, two sets of sample groups, and two different results. It sounds a little like what you'd discover if you conducted a man-on-the-street survey among passengers disembarking from the same flight. One third have an axe to grind, while the other two thirds got what they expected.

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And, that was a lot like my flight. In the end, I dozed off to "House," clutching an empty glass of wine—just as I had hoped. I arrived safely, also as I had hoped (and that counts for a whole lot). But, not before receiving a hairy airline blanket, a snot-specked copy of SkyMall and a dented tin of oleaginous cat food. Not happy-making, but not a major surprise, either.

Then there was the broken bathroom partition with five-inch gaps. In the one private place where I could wash up and brush my teeth, I had a surprising view of a very large man logging some very serious miles. Christmas had come early for him, it seems, and my expectations for commercial flight's nadir deepened ever so slightly.

My informal customer satisfaction rating? About 67%, and over time, that will probably hold steady.

--Written by Williams Richards for MainStret

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