From Cakes To Catastrophe: The Decline Of Airline Customer Service

Lalit Das

Last Thanksgiving week, my family and I wanted to travel to India as we had not seen my grandparents in almost four years. Yet, at four in the morning we found out that the flight to Singapore had been delayed by eight hours causing us to miss our connecting flight. We tried to get a refund, yet much to our surprise, they demanded us to pay a cancellation fee. The customer service was a great shock to my parents, considering that just sixteen years ago, this same airline greeted them with a cake on the same flight number. This begs the question, what factors have contributed to the decline of airline customer service and can it be fixed?

First, it is important to understand some of the issues in the industry. Across the globe, customers have found that they are getting more expensive, less comfortable, and getting canceled or delayed more often. In an analysis of the consumer price index for airline tickets, Brett Holzhauer for CNBC found that even when accounting for inflation, “ The consumer price index for airline tickets has shot up by 25% — the largest jump since the Federal Reserve of St. Louis began tracking the index in 1989.”  Yet, in spite of such a dramatic increase in cost, quality has regressed. 

One factor that is important in determining the quality of airlines is the legroom of seats. Consumer advocacy group FlyersRights found that, “Average legroom has decreased from 35 to 31 inches, with the lowest being 28 inches.” These changes not only cause seats to be uncomfortable, but they are both making seats less inclusive and more possibly dangerous. The decline in space is probably as smaller seats are less apt to hold older, taller, and less able bodied people. Now, FlyerRights estimates that only a measly 25% of passengers can fit comfortably in economy class seats. There are other practical concerns with safety. In an, albeit unlikely, event of an accident, narrower seats would make it harder for passengers to leave a plane which could result in increased deaths. 

Additionally, more and more flights are getting delayed and even canceled. Nathan Gomes from Reuters found that, “U.S.-based carriers scrapped 128,934 flights from January to July, up about 11% from pre-pandemic levels…Flight delays have also reached nearly a million this year.” Following the pandemic, airlines lost many pilots and baggage carriers, which may be a cause for the major increase in cancellations. This problem needs time to be healed, however the main issue with the amount of cancellations is the airline response to customers. Relations have gotten so bad that consumers had to sue. As David Schaper of NPR reports, “The Department [of Transportation] is assessing fines totaling $7.5 million against six airlines, and the DOT is ordering those airlines to pay $600 million in refunds.” The actions that airlines are taking to prevent refunds is indicative of the decline of the customer service aspect of the industry. 

It’s important to understand that many of the issues that face the industry now are lingering effects of the pandemic. There will be fewer flights that will be delayed as airlines train more pilots. However, one of the underlying problems is with a lack of competition, with the prime culprits being airline alliances. Data from Statistica shows that almost half of all passenger travel in 2020 went though one of the three major airline alliances – Star, Skyteam, or OneWorld. Airline alliances allow airlines to make price-cutting and profit-motivated actions at the expense of the consumer together. 

Fortunately, there are ways to combat the highly centralized monopolistic nature of airlines. Already, the Department of Transportation has filed antitrust lawsuits against Northeast Alliance. However, in order for there to be widespread competition, more needs to be done, and it has to be done at a governmental level. Regulations need to be enacted before the airline industry goes too far.  

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