Flights like this one aboard a Delta aircraft this summer, on which nearly every seat was filled, … [+]
You’d think that with U.S. airlines carrying roughly 10% to 20% fewer travelers this summer that those carriers would be recording some of the highest numbers of positive customer comments and lowest numbers of customer complaints ever.
But you’d be wrong – waaaay wrong.
One reason is that while carriers are carrying net fewer passengers than they did in 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, they’re also not operating as many planes and flights. And because the vast majority of the flights that still haven’t been resumed are long-haul international flights aboard widebody jets, airlines today are, in many cases, actually carrying more people on their narrowbody domestic aircraft than was the case before the pandemic.
On top of that, virtually all airlines are doing that work with fewer staff now because they’ve not yet been able to hire and train enough new employees to replace the tens of thousands who took offers of early retirement in 2019. In 2020, industry operations shrank by 70% or more in response to the unprecedented decline in demand caused by the pandemic. So airlines encouraged large numbers of employees getting close to retirement to go ahead and leave early. Now they really could use lots of those retirees back on the front lines, but once unionized airline workers clock out and claim their retirement benefits they cannot come back.
As a result, air travelers these days are feeling deprived of the attention they expect to receive. For good reason; they simply aren’t getting it. And they’re letting the rest of us hear about it via social media.
This summer, on average, the 10 largest U.S. airlines lost 20.1 percentage points off their “positive Twitter comments” score from two years ago. And while those same 10 carriers’ average score for “negative Twitter comments” actually improved ever-so-slightly, two of them – Allegiant and, shockingly, Southwest, saw huge increases in negative comments about them as a percentage of all comments about them on Twitter .
This unusual – perhaps even unique – analysis of U.S. airlines’ respective customer service performances was undertaken by InsureMyTrip.com, a website that provides price and policy comparisons to consumers shopping for travel insurance coverage. They analyzed more than 25,000 tweets over a two-week period between July 19 and August 2 this year and compared the results against tweets about the same 10 airlines during the corresponding two-week period in summer 2019, before the pandemic began, to discern which carriers attracted the most positive – and the most negative – tweets
While the Department of Transportation tracks the number — and kind — of complaints lodged annually against individual airlines, that data set is regarded as an incomplete analytical tool because of the bias built into the complaint-filing system. Pleased customers have no mechanism to tell the DOT that they were, in fact, served well, or to compliment carriers for their performance in the various categories of customer service. Also, the DOT stats have no way of accounting for the natural tendency of people to file only complaints when the service was especially poor but to say nothing at all when the service they received was really good.
So, InsureMyTrip researchers turned to Twitter, with its more than 330 million active users, to try to gauge both positive and negative comments about airlines tweeted out by consumers, and to dig a little deeper into which aspects of service individual carriers tended to provide better or worse, from the customers’ perspective.
This summer, Alaska Airlines came in with the highest percentage of positive Tweets about its service: 43.8%. Hawaiian Airlines got the lowest (best) percentage of negative Tweets: 34.2%
At the other end of the spectrum, discount carrier Spirit Airlines had the lowest percentage of positive Tweets at just 21%, while Alaska had the “best” showing in the negative Tweets competition with just 32% of the tweets about it during the analysis period being negative in nature.
The most notable scores in the InsureMyTrip analysis were registered by Southwest, whose customer service historically has ranked at or near the top of the industry in various studies conducted throughout its 50 years in operation. Though the Dallas-based carrier, which began flying in 1971 as a low-cost/low fare carrier, has seen its costs rise over the years as it grew to become the biggest U.S. airline in terms of passengers boarded. But despite that growth and the higher costs that accompany being a large operator with relatively high-paid employees, Southwest has been able to maintain its reputation for providing top service.
But this summer, as the carrier tried to rebuild its huge domestic network more rapidly than most of its competitors, it has run into big service quality problems. That’s because its current workforce, which was trimmed dramatically last year by thousands of retirements, has been inadequate to provide anything more than minimal service. In fact, Southwest has struggled to even find enough workers to even staff at the minimum allowed level all the flights the company added back to its schedule as the pandemic eased.
Flight attendants, pilots and gate agents in particular have complained loudly and publicly about being overworked and forced to handle more passengers and more problems than they are capable of doing at current staffing levels. In response, Southwest last week said it would scale back its aggressive recovery scheduling a bit this fall to take some of the pressure off its troops and give them the ability to provide more and better customer service.
Still, the problems Southwest has had this summer are evident in the numbers from Twitter. Only 32% of the tweets about Southwest during this summer’s study period were positive, while 45.1% were negative. In the 2019 study period 69.9% of tweets about Southwest were positive, while only 30.1% were negative. That was, by a wide margin, the best positive-to-negative tweets ratio among the 10 largest U.S. airlines back in 2019.
Discounter Allegiant took the biggest fall in positive vs. negative tweets this year, attracting just 27.2 positive tweets during this summer’s study period, a 38.2 percentage point decline. And its negative tweets climbed 17.87 percentage points (more than any other airline) to 53.5%.
The industry’s “Big Four” carriers – American, Delta, United and Southwest – all saw declines in the tenor of consumers’ responses on Twitter to the service they received. Only 26.8% of tweets about American this summer were positive, down from 44.21% in 2019, while 52.5% of the tweets about it this summer were negative, up from 49.35% in 2019.
Delta’s percentage of positive tweets this summer took a big tumble to just 29.8%, from 51.28% in the 2019 study period. United’s decline in the percentage of positive tweets was a little smaller; to 32%, down 18.59 percentage points from 50.59 percent in 2019.
Southwest was not, by any means, the only U.S. airline that saw its customer service quality decline, per the InsureMyTrip study, because of staffing shortages coming out of the industry’s dramatic scale back in 2020.
Ronni Kenoian, InsureMyTrip’s director of marketing, said “cancellations” was the most commonly-tweeted negative key word used by Twitter users during the study period this summer. United, she said, was called out for flight cancellations in just over 10% of all tweets about it this summer. That was highest among the 10 airlines in the use of that word by those posting tweets. The word “delays” was the second most heavily used negative keyword.
The rise in flight cancellations and delays recently has certainly led to frustration among passengers,” she said.
“As many are now considering future travel plans, we strongly encourage travelers to purchase travel insurance,” Kenoian said, putting in a plug for her company’s service. “If you get stuck at the airport for several hours, travel delay coverage may help to reimburse for meals or additional accommodations necessary during a covered delay.”
I wrote my first airline-related news story in May 1982 – about the first bankruptcy filing of Braniff International Airways. That led to 26 years covering airlines and
I wrote my first airline-related news story in May 1982 – about the first bankruptcy filing of Braniff International Airways. That led to 26 years covering airlines and related subjects at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and USA TODAY. I followed the industry through the entire arch of deregulation: expansion, disruption, and consolidation. I’ve also written two books on the subject: American Eagle: The Ascent of Bob Crandall and American Airlines, published in 1993, and (with co-author Ted Reed) American Airlines, US Airways and the Creation of the World’s Largest Airline, published in 2014. Today, I operate my own consulting firm and work as a freelance journalist covering aviation, faith, travel, business, IT, education, and sports. I’m a graduate of the University of Arkansas (Woo Pig Sooie!) and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.