Turbulent Times

Despite higher quality ratings, recent incidents how some airlines still must improve the passenger experience

Several recent service-related problems experienced by U.S. airline passengers have left everyone from government officials to occasional air travelers wary of the industry’s priorities.

The most widely publicized incidents occurred in April when a video showed security personnel dragging a man off of an overbooked United Airlines plane in Chicago after the passenger refused to relinquish his seat to crew members. Later that month, an American Airlines flight attendant yanked a stroller from the hands of a mother holding her baby.1-3

That same month, American Airlines began an investigation after video showed a mother crying during a confrontation with a flight attendant on one of its airplanes. In May, Delta was forced to apologize for kicking a family with young children off of a flight after they had already boarded.4

These events have led to a wave of discussions on how airlines view customer satisfaction as a measurement by which to evaluate performance. The incidents also have brought to light the reality that, despite improved quality and satisfaction ratings compared to previous years, the airline industry as a whole may not always put its customers’ needs at the same level of importance as financial gain, indicating industrywide changes may be necessary.

Is customer satisfaction a priority?

Two recent studies show airline quality and customer satisfaction figures actually improved in 2016 when compared to 2015.

Using information from the U.S. Department of Transportation, researchers from Wichita State University in Kansas and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, AZ, rate airlines on several quality-related measures.

The latest annual report, released in April, found that overall, airline performance in 2016 improved. Of all flights in 2016, 81.4% arrived on time or close to schedule, compared to 79.9% in 2015. The rate of lost, stolen or delayed bags decreased by 17%. The chances of getting involuntarily bumped from an overbooked flight (the problem associated with United Airlines’ now notorious incident) went down by 18%.

Meanwhile, the number of government-filed complaints decreased by one-fifth, although that doesn’t account for complaints made directly to the airlines, which aren’t required to disclose that information.

The report ranked Alaska Airlines as the best U.S. carrier, with Delta a close second. Frontier Airlines came in last, just behind Spirit Airlines.5

While some experts consider the Wichita State/Embry-Riddle study helpful to compare airlines, a major downfall is that it doesn’t fully evaluate the customer experience.

According to Bryan Saltzburg, a TripAdvisor executive, the research "really doesn’t take into consideration how the customer is treated … What’s the value for what the customer paid?"6

For a better look at the customer experience, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) in April released a ranking of U.S. airlines after conducting more than 12 months of interviews with thousands of fliers. The interviews ended in March 2017, before the United Airlines incident brought passenger treatment into the spotlight. The study found passenger satisfaction to be up from the previous year, but that "airlines remain in the bottom third of industries" ACSI tracks in terms of customer experience.7

"Customer satisfaction has never appeared to be a goal for airlines," said Claes Fornell, ACSI chairman and founder. "Compared to other industries, the financial return on passenger satisfaction is not much of an incentive. The exception is in the few airports where airlines actually compete with one another—or when they treat passengers spectacularly badly in public."8

The ACSI research found JetBlue, Southwest and Alaska Airlines to be the best airlines, according to passengers surveyed. United was the lowest-scoring legacy carrier. Customer experience perks, such as JetBlue’s low-cost business model and cabin upgrades, helped it come out on top.

Meanwhile, the report showed passengers are happy with Southwest’s policies of not charging extra for flight changes and not having other hidden fees. JetBlue and Southwest also have a better history of compensating passengers affected by overbooked flights, the report said.9

According to the researchers, gains in passenger satisfaction have largely been driven by price, but this report shows the customer experience is playing an increasingly important role.

"Apparently, low ticket prices are not enough of a trade-off for low service quality," ACSI Director David VanAmburg said, "particularly as most airlines now also compete on price."10

Changing policies to ‘do what’s right’

Given the renewed focus on the customer experience, how is the airline industry ensuring incidents of passenger mistreatment don’t recur? Several airlines have announced new policies.

United, for example, announced it will implement 10 customer service policies to prevent future incidents such as the one in Chicago. Among the policy changes, the airline said it will compensate passengers up to $10,000 to voluntarily give up a seat on an overbooked flight, and it will reduce overbooking overall.

It’s standard practice for airlines to overbook flights in anticipation of no-shows. Previously, most airlines offered vouchers for future flights as an incentive for passengers to volunteer their seats.

United also implemented a policy stating passengers cannot be involuntarily removed from a flight they’ve boarded unless safety or security is at risk. Law enforcement officers also are no longer permitted to remove passengers except when safety and security is a concern.

Meanwhile, Southwest announced it planned to end overbooking flights altogether beginning May 8, a policy JetBlue has long had.11

While it may be argued many airlines are updating their policies because they don’t want to weather negative publicity, they may at some point be forced to improve customer service practices under increased government oversight. Following the United incident, executives representing five major U.S. airlines, including United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, appeared in front of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Transportation Committee in Washington, D.C.

"We’re kind of sick of it as the consuming Americans," said Rep. Michael Capuano, D-MA. "We’ve got to fly. You’ve got us. If you want to keep treating us this way, fine. I guess we can only do so much. But there will come a day when Congress won’t accept it anymore on behalf of the American people."12

For now, there are no immediate plans to increase oversight of the industry, but airlines are vowing to do better by balancing policy and procedure with treating customers with respect.

Of the incident in Chicago, United CEO Munoz said, "Our review shows that many things went wrong that day, but the headline is clear: Our policies got in the way of our values, and procedures interfered in doing what’s right."13

—compiled by Amanda Hankel, contributing editor


  1. Associated Press, "Despite Bad Headlines, Airline Quality Is Improving With Fewer Customer Complaints, Report Says," Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/latimes-airline-quality.
  2. Julia Horowitz, "Southwest Airlines: We Won’t Overbook Anymore," CNN Money, April 28, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/cnn-money-southwest.
  3. Amy Wang, "‘Come On, Hit Me!’ American Airlines Grounds Flight Attendant After Video Shows Confrontation," Washington Post, April 22, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/wash-post-amer-airlines.
  4. Jackie Wattles, "Delta Nixes Media Event After ‘Viral’ Customer Service Issues," CNN Money, May 7, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/cnn-money-delta-svc.
  5. Associated Press, "Despite Bad Headlines, Airline Quality Is Improving With Fewer Customer Complaints, Report Says," see reference 1.
  6. Ibid.
  7. "ACSI: Low-Cost Carriers Lead Legacy Airlines for Passenger Satisfaction," American Customer Satisfaction Index, April 25, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/acsi-pass-sat-survey.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ben Mutzabaugh, "United Airlines Pledges New Protections for Fliers in Wake of Passenger-Dragging Incident," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 27, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/jsonline-united-pledges.
  12. Chris Isidore, "United CEO: ‘We Had a Horrible Failure,’" CNN Money, May 2, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/cnn-money-united-failure.
  13. Mutzabaugh, "United Airlines Pledges New Protections for Fliers in Wake of Passenger-Dragging Incident," see reference 11.


Quality Ensures Growth, Enhances Profitability

Top-level executives and quality professionals see a direct connection between the success of their continuous improvement or performance excellence initiatives and the overall success of their organizations, according to new research from Forbes Insights and ASQ.

Nearly half of survey respondents said their quality efforts have resulted in increased profitability and enhanced important key functions across their organizations.

The resulting report, titled "The Rising Economic Power of Quality: How Quality Ensures Growth and Enhances Profitability," focuses on the links between quality efforts and corporate performance and on the evolving business value of quality.

The research draws on the responses of 1,000 senior executives and 869 quality professionals worldwide from various industries. The survey was conducted online in March.

"The speed of business just keeps accelerating, and disruptions are multiplying," said Bruce Rogers, chief insights officer at Forbes Media. "Thriving in this environment means infusing quality through every part of the enterprise."

The results reveal quality has a direct impact on profit growth. Organizations significantly embracing continuous improvement or performance excellence are more likely to see higher levels of productivity than those lagging in quality efforts.

The most common benefits from quality initiatives include boosting customer growth and sales, followed by gaining efficiency. Areas most likely to be touched by quality initiatives include operations, customer service and production.

Access the full report: www.forbes.com/forbesinsights/asq_economics_of_quality.


Spong Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

E. David Spong, a past-president of ASQ’s board of directors, was recently named the first recipient of the E. David Spong Lifetime Achievement Award by the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award Foundation.

During five decades of leadership, Spong led as president of ASQ, chairman of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award Foundation Board of Directors, and chair of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s visiting committee of advanced technology.

In addition, one of his most prestigious claims to fame is being the only leader ever to guide two organizations (Boeing Airlift and Tanker Programs and Boeing Aerospace Support) to Baldrige Awards in two different sectors: manufacturing and service.

Lifetime achievement award recipients change their worlds and inspire others to do the same," said Baldrige Foundation Chair P. George Benson.

It is fitting then that the award should be named after and its first recipient should be David Spong," Benson said.

After receiving the award earlier this year at a ceremony in Baltimore, Spong said his lifelong journey toward excellence started with a feeling of "maybe I’ll get there," but he has come to believe fervently in the "big Q," which he describes as long-term, total quality management and internal evaluation.

Editor’s note

Dawn Marie Bailey, a writer and editor for the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, contributed this article. To read more about Spong and the award, visit her blog at http://tinyurl.com/nist-blog-spong.

New @ ASQ

ASQ Groups Planning October Conferences ASQ’s Chemical and Process Industries and Statistics divisions will host their fall technical conference Oct. 4-6 in Philadelphia. To learn more, go to www.falltechnicalconference.org. ASQ’s Audit Division will hold its 26th annual conference Oct. 12-13 in Dallas. For additional details, visit www.asqauditconference.org. ASQ’s Innovation Division and the ASQ Dayton Section will host the fifth annual innovation conference Oct. 13-15 in Dayton, OH. Learn more at http://asq.org/innovation-group.

Accreditation Requirements Unveiled ANAB published an updated notification of 2017 ANAB accreditation requirements for forensic science testing and calibration labs. The update reflects a change to the date new applicant forensic service providers must apply under 2017 requirements. It also provides clarification related to non-U.S. forensic service providers. Visit http://tinyurl.com/anab-forensics.

New ASTM Leader Named Katharine Morgan was named president of American Society for Testing Materials International, a large standards development organization. Morgan is a 33-year veteran of the organization, having served as executive vice president for the past two years. Prior to that, she was vice president of technical committee operations. Go to http://tinyurl.com/morgan-astm.

Getting to Know…

Nicholas D. Skovran

Current position: President, President, Quality Horizons LLC, Pittsburgh.

Education: Master of science, management science, University of Dayton, OH.

What was your introduction to quality? In the early 1980s, I worked as an engineer for Ingersoll-Rand Painted Post in New York and learned and implemented cellular manufacturing, standard work and the seven basic quality tools.

What's the best advice you ever received? Always do two things. That’s the advice Tony Bennett received early in his career, and it’s the reason he sang and painted. I teach, speak, consult and audit.

Any recent honors or awards? Elected to ASQ's 2017 class of fellows.

Outside activities? I serve as a board of director member of the Center for Victims (CV), a nonprofit organization in Pittsburgh that helps victims of crime and that is  considered an innovative leader in the field of victim services. Also a member of the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh.

What were the last books you read? The Secret History of the Mongols; The Life and Times of Chinggis Khan; The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion; and Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work.

Are you active in ASQ? I have served as chair-elect, chair and past chair. Currently I present concepts, tools and methods at local, national and international levels. I also teach Six Sigma and quality engineering certification refresher courses.

Have you ever written an article? Several articles including: "Creating Collaboration Across the Integrated Network," Hospital News, 1996; "Strategic Quality Management," a paper presented at the Quest for Quality and Productivity in Health Services in 1992 in Chicago; and the "Art of Leadership and the Cultural Change Requirements," a paper presented at an ASQ Pittsburgh Section conference.

Personal: Married to Colleen for 35 years; two sisters, six nieces and nephews, and eight grandnieces and nephews.

What do you do for fun? I try not to sit in front of my computer, and I turn my cellphone off after work. I like to walk, hike, yoga, golf, tennis and swim. I also enjoy reading the British GQ and Esquire magazines to keep current.

Quality quote: With respect to organizational knowledge, lessons learned and root cause analysis: "Learn from the mistakes of others," Groucho Marx said. "You can never live long enough to make them all yourself."

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