Flying the indifferent skies

I saw another interesting piece on the Knowledge@Wharton site today, this one offering a perspective that will come as little surprise to anyone who travels regularly.

The air travel experience these days is frequently bad to miserable, according to the article, and as bad experiences have become the norm airlines have largely stopped caring about customer service.

The piece, “Feel Free to Move About the Airport: Turbulence Continues to Roil the Airline Industry,” quotes Wharton Professor Serguei Netessine reflecting on the new reality of airline customer service: “Previously airlines worried about dissatisfied customers. Now I don’t think they worry about it because the customer service at all airlines is so horrible.”

For this year’s first five months, major airlines’ on-time arrival rate was just 73.5%, the lowest for the same period in seven years, according to the article. Meanwhile, complaints about airline service were up 49% from May 2006.

Not surprisingly, the Knowledge@Wharton article cites airlines’ reduced capacity as the culprit behind much of the decline in service. Airlines have cut capacity in an effort to operate profitably as demand for seats has risen. Coupled with airlines’ tendency to overbook flights in an effort to avoid flying with empty seats, and the American airline industry’s reliance on a hub-and-spoke model, problems tend to escalate quickly when bad whether or other factors force flight delays or cancellations.

Is there any cause for hope on the horizon? The Knowledge@Wharton piece notes that U.S. Department of Transportation officials are considering increasing the “bumping penalties” airlines are required to pay passengers bumped from their flights. And Congress has considered various “Airline Passenger’s Bill of Rights” proposals.

Ultimately, though, the piece suggests that some inherent elements of the airline business–its capital intensive nature and tendency to experience boom and bust cycles–along with an air traffic control system badly in need of upgrading and skies becoming ever more crowded with an increased number of corporate jets don’t bode well.

Perhaps the best we travelers can do is take the advice of a Department of Transportation air travel guide quoted in the article and when possible fly defensively, assuming that what can go wrong will and trying to allow for it in our travel plans.

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