It’s always very interesting to gauge consumer perception when it comes to airlines.

Global brand strategy and market growth firm Brandigo just released a compelling new report titled, “Airlines Brand Perception Study,” which, among other things, reveals the strong notion that airlines must perform abundantly more when it comes to building brand loyalty.

Chris Langathianos, vice president of brand strategy for Brandigo, talked to Loyalty360 about this intriguing research.

“It’s hard to build loyalty when the perception among customers is that airlines aren’t delivering on the fundamentals. At Brandigo, we call them points of parity, or the things that consumers expect you to deliver every time, without fail. For airlines, I think it is as simple as getting what you paid for. If you purchase a confirmed seat to a specific destination, you should be guaranteed a seat. I think the practice of overbooking is doing tremendous damage to the reputation of the airline industry, overall. Those are the fundamentals. Then there are things that airlines could be doing to make themselves distinct or unique when compared to other carriers. Interestingly enough, I don’t think this would be too difficult to do because consumer perceptions and expectations are at such a low.”

For example, Langathianos said he purchased two tickets on JetBlue from Boston to Fort Lauderdale.

“The tickets were $1,300,” he explained. “That’s a significant expense to most Americans. When I checked in online today, the system did not assign seats and indicated they would be assigned at the gate. When we arrived at the gate, we were assigned two middle seats, meaning that for $1,300, JetBlue didn’t see any value in trying to seat two customers together. Now as a marketer, the most troubling thing to me is that, while I was annoyed by the experience and disappointed to not be seated with my travel companion, I was pleased that I actually got a seat on the flight. That’s a pretty low bar, and I can’t think of any brands, in any industry, that we have worked with who would say, ‘that’s good enough’ when it comes to the basics.”

The nationwide survey was conducted between May 10-12 and involved a cross section of 410 adults aged 18 and older, representing those that do travel by air for business or pleasure.

This survey revealed that:

- Nearly 60 percent do not feel loyal to any airline
- 56.7 percent of all respondents’ perception of United Airlines changed since the incident
- Before the incident: 81.7 percent were at least neutral or had some level of positivity towards the brand
- 67.3 percent of respondents’ current perception of United Airlines is at least somewhat negative

For those that fly most frequently (more than seven times per year):

- Before the incident: 75 percent were at least neutral or had some level of positivity toward the brand
- Current perception for nearly 68 percent of the most frequent travelers feel United Airlines is at least somewhat negative
- 53.7 percent are less willing to purchase a ticket from United Airlines
- “Disgust” is the feeling that best describes how 41 percent of respondents were feeling when they first learned of the United incident
- 36.2 percent, if given a choice of airlines, would be willing to pay more to purchase a ticket on a competing airline to avoid flying United Airlines.
- An overwhelming 73.5 percent feel that airlines view them as a ticket sale or piece of revenue as opposed to 12 percent who feel like airlines view them as a valuable customer or 4.6 percent who feel like airlines view them as a human.
- 42.5 percent feel more on edge or on guard when flying following a media incident like the recent United Airlines incident.

A small sampling of some open-ended comments from respondents included:

"They only care about the money."
"Airlines have lost all respect for their customer's dignity and importance."
"It reinforced my perception that in general, the airlines are indifferent to customer service."
"ALL airlines treat passengers like crap! It's all about how much money they can gouge us for!"
"They overbook their flights so they seem to be more interested in money than passengers."
"The CEO has completely failed to provide leadership or address these incidents."
"Totally inconsiderate and no sense whatsoever of customer service."
"Poor leadership and customer service people with lack of training to problem solve and take care of customers."

What needs to be done to rectify that?

“A renewed focus on the customer is where airlines need to start,” Langathianos said. “Think about the service airlines provide: Yes, it’s a form of transportation, but it’s bigger than that. When people fly, they are often doing something that has a tremendous impact on their lives. Maybe they’re going on a special vacation, maybe they're visiting loved ones, traveling to an interview or going to a meeting to close a big deal. But it could also be something much less pleasant like traveling to a funeral or another sad life event. Air travel–your experience with your carrier–is essentially the very first touch point of a life experience people will never forget. That’s a huge opportunity. Airlines can, in a sense, position themselves as a playing a larger role in the lives of their customers and important life experiences, but to do so, they would have to make air travelers feel valuable again.” 

Langathianos said he was shocked by the level of disappointment people feel toward airlines right now.

“I didn’t expect that responses would be overwhelmingly positive but for such a vast majority of people, who spend a good deal of money on fares, to feel so unimportant, you must be doing a lot of things wrong,” he explained. “That’s my biggest takeaway from the research but, ultimately, the takeaway is aa huge opportunity for the airline industry. It will be interesting to see who leads the transformation of consumer perceptions.”

What’s more, Langathianos was surprised that there wasn’t a larger delineation between the perceptions of business travelers and those who travel for pleasure. Business travelers were only slightly more loyal.

“Frequent business travelers are the bread and butter of the industry, yet consumers don’t feel enough of an emotional connection to carriers to be loyal,” he explained. “I believe that consumers feel that they are treated like commodities by the airline industry, and consumers are now commoditizing carriers. It’s a pretty ugly and unfortunate situation.”

Airlines need to innovate the customer experience and give people a reason to choose a specific airline.

“It seems that superficially, the industry is still talking about in-flight movies and Wi-Fi as big selling points,” Langathianos said. “I think those things have fallen to the level of points of parity. It’s simply the cost of doing business for being an air carrier today.”

From a price perspective, everyone is trying to be competitive.

“My question to airline executives would be this: What’s going to be the thing that makes a disgruntled consumer base want to choose you over another carrier at a similar price point?” he said. “What customer experience can you offer that is so uniquely different that it would completely disrupt the industry’s way of thinking about customer service? It's not an easy question to answer, but I don’t believe the answer is out of reach. It’s about elevating the overall experience of customers, making them feel valued, and bringing the best luxuries and conveniences of life to 30,000 feet.”

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