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Why We Don't Complain About Airline Travel Anymore (And How To Avoid Disappointment This Holiday Season)

To close the gap between what customers expect and what they receive means to either improve delivery or lower customer expectations.
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The Los Angeles Times ran an interesting story on November 21, 2009: airlines continue to get great marks for customer satisfaction and fewer people are complaining about bad experiences with airlines. Industry data doesn't help explain this phenomenon because, according to the article, airlines are only required to report mishandled baggage, delayed flights and incidents involving pets, tarmac delays and other specific problems, not data on general grievances about fees, rude staff or dirty seats.

Could it be that the airlines are in fact doing a better job at keeping customers happy or might it be that travelers have given up complaining? To understand customer satisfaction (or dissatisfaction), means to understand what customers expect and what they receive. If customer expectations are not being met, then customers are likely to be dissatisfied - the bigger the gap between expectation and delivery, the more disgruntled the customer. To close the gap, that is to reduce dissatisfaction, means to either improve delivery or lower customer expectations.

While I am well aware that some airlines do a great job and build their brand on customer satisfaction, I think the reality is that we as customers have been conditioned to expect less. I went onto YouTube to look at old commercials and documentaries so as to be reminded about what airline travel used to be like - silver service and fine china service at airports lounges and on planes, free meals (and yes they were meals as we know them), newspapers delivered to your seat, and friendly crew who liked helped customers fly the friendly skies. Air travel was certainly expensive and time consuming and had with it the allure of reaching destinations that many of us had only dreamed of visiting. Air travel was a high involvement purchase, not just because of its cost but also because of the social prestige that went with being able to say you were taking a fight to reach another destination.

But, over time, air travel has become no different to taking a bus. Air travel is cheap and accessible and for many of a necessary means for getting from A to B. Because air travel has become more like a commodity and prices have spiraled downward, airlines are finding new and creative ways to claw back revenue. For example, I read just last week that an airline was putting fixed ads on the back of seats such that sitting in an airline seat is taking on the characteristics of pushing a shopping cart - for the duration of a domestic flight we now have to sit staring at an ad, just as we do pushing a shopping cart around a supermarket.

And so with the holiday season approaching, and with the excitement of traveling to see friends and family, lower your expectations and you won't be disappointed.

Jenny Darroch is on the faculty at the Drucker School of Management. She is an expert on marketing strategies that generate growth. See