Airline service is at a depressing low. As the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index recently noted, Americans are more disastisfied with today’s carriers than they are with the IRS.
But the weight of this didn’t hit me until last week, when I flew round-trip, New York-to-Austin, on Oprah’s favorite carrier, American Airlines (“Something special in the air!”).
During my sojourn, I was charged $15 each way to check a duffle bag; nasally assaulted upon entering Flight 732 to New York—a plane that when boarded smelled like a combination of lavatory sewage, stale cigarette smoke, and moldy jockstraps (something special in the air, indeed); and, with a great deal of fanfare, served the drink in the above photo.
This goes way beyond bad jokes about bad airplane food. This year, said the Michigan report in May, “Customer satisfaction with airlines drops to its lowest point since 2001, falling for a third year in a row. Faced with the soaring cost of jet fuel, airlines are raising ticket prices, overbooking flights, and charging extra fees for checking more than one bag”—or, in my case, just one bag—”and for ‘premium’ seats,” not just in first class, but, say, like one on an aisle.
“Households are under pressure from falling housing prices, tight credit, and rising food and fuel costs, making it more difficult for satisfied consumers to spend more even if they want to,” said Claes Fornell, founder of the ACSI and author of The Satisfied Customer: Winners and Losers in the Battle for Buyer Preference. “The smart move for companies in this economic environment is to make sure they keep the customers they have by shoring up their customer relationships.”
Or, as I say, relations between the American consumer and the airlines is like a basketball that’s been over-inflated to the near bursting point. Dissatisfaction is raging, but the airlines own the market, and there’s no alternative to flight. Nothing’s giving way.
This can’t continue forever, though. They can’t raise prices without end, and as displeasure grows, more and more people will stop flying, or seek possible alternatives to it. The airlines will have to either pull back on price, increase service, or differentiate themselves in some other way that prospective passengers recognize as beneficial.
Or, they can just keep inflating the ball, increasing the pressure. But when the sphere finally bursts, dude, watch out.