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Airline Industry Customer Experience

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There was time when airline travel was comfortable and convenient, with free luggage check-in, free drinks,  free food and in-flight entertainment. Airline Industry customer experience has changed significantly since, and is a prime case study on how customers’ adapt to changing priorities of companies.

For US Airline industry, the priority has changed from delivering good customer experience to being financial sound. Unfortunately, this industry wide priority change has hurt customer experience and forced customers to reconsider their expectations. The purpose of this blog is to analyze the customer experience delivered by different airlines, using the “Customer Experience Framework” (read about the framework here).

When it comes to customer experience there is hardly much differentiation across the major US Airlines (except Southwest). Airlines segment their customers into preferred customers and regular customers and deliver different customer experience to both segments. Customer experience map for preferred customers is below:

Preferred Customers with loyalty programs get high brand experience from the airlines. Associated with this high brand experience is better convenience and better price. These customers do not pay extra for better seats, check-in luggage, standby flights, preferential boarding or even upgrades. These additional perks make it convenient and cost-effective for preferred customers to travel with just one airline. On top of Brand, Convenience and Availability, the top airlines do meet customer requirements as they are able to fly customers from place to place. Also, they offer good availability through their own fleet and their partner networks. So the top airlines do well across 5 factors for their preferred customers.

But with Regular customers, the customer experience delivered by these major airlines is completely different as shown in the figure below.

For regular customers,  airlines deliver the same experience across Requirements and Availability factors. But they do not deliver other experiences that are reserved for their brand loyal customers. Hence the customer experience for regular customers is strong across three factors (i.e. requirements, availability and brand). Based on this experience, regular customers do not have any incentive to fly with one airline and they shop for the best combination of price & convenience (direct vs. 1/2 stops).

In summary, major airlines deliver good customer experience across 5 factors for preferred customers and across 3 factors for regular customers. Given the distribution of their customer base across preferred and regular customers, they are able to deliver this customer experience while aligning well with their current financial priorities.

Discussion about airlines industry will not be complete without discussing Southwest Airlines, figure below depicts Southwest’s customer experience chart.

Given their business model it is difficult for Southwest to differentiate customer experience for their preferred and regular customers. Their customer experience is focused on price, as they do not charge any additional fees for luggage, standby, change fees etc. for any of their customers. Also, their boarding process is based on first come first serve basis (though preferred customers do get the “A” boarding) which does not preclude a regular customer for getting into the plane first and occupying convenient exit row seat. So Southwest delivers good customer experience across Brand, Requirements and Price for all customer segments. Given the lack of extensive partnership and limited airports that Southwest serves, it falls short on the availability aspect, and service/support is no different than the major airlines.

Based on the customer experience maps for these major airlines, there is opportunity for other airlines to deliver better experience across other factors and build a business model on that experience. Please let me know of what your think about airline industry customer experience.