Frontier Airlines: In a Digital Age, Is a No-Phone Customer Experience Model a Step Too Far?

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Nearly 3 million passengers fly in and out of US airports every day, generating a huge amount of customer interactions that need to be handled by airlines and travel providers. With Customer Experience (CX) playing such a vital role in a business’s success, Frontier Airlines raised eyebrows recently by announcing it had removed the option to call its customer service representatives. Instead, the carrier will ask its customers to contact them only via digital channels, in what it described as an attempt to answer customer queries as ‘expeditiously and efficiently’ as possible.

The controversy surrounding this decision shines a light on the importance of balance. CX leaders must reckon with innovative digital communications, whilst simultaneously catering to the needs of all customers.

No Phone: A Cost-Saving Measure Too Far?

Over 20 million passengers flew with Frontier Airlines in 2021, making it the eighth-largest US carrier. With traditional airlines such as Delta, United, and American Airlines dominating the industry, competition has intensified amongst low-cost carriers, including Frontier. Low-cost carriers traditionally carve out a niche by offering no-frills experiences that allow passengers to travel for the lowest possible cost. To keep ticket prices low, carriers have to cut costs in every area of their operations. Trimming down their CX is the natural next step.

Though cutting back on operations will help a carrier’s bottom line, it might ultimately end up costing them customers. The exertion it takes for a customer to resolve a query, known as the Customer Effort Score (CES), can be a more accurate measure of long-term customer loyalty than customer satisfaction alone. 86% of people will leave a brand they trusted after only 2 poor experiences, and when a business palms off all the hard work to the consumer, either by complex forms to fill or time-consuming information gathering, it worsens the CES along with the overall customer experience, driving customers to take their business elsewhere.

Baggage, and Great CX, For an Extra Fee

The cost-cutting potential of going digital-only will always draw the attention of business leaders, but traditional channels shouldn’t be condemned to the history books. To get the best of both worlds, brands should focus on adopting an omni-channel strategy.

Omni-channel CX ensures a flexible approach that allows customers to choose the most appropriate channel for their enquiry, whether that is through social, digital or traditional channels. Passengers with low-yield enquires can still self-serve over digital channels, whereas Frontier risk alienating customers who prefer to speak to an agent for more urgent queries such as cancellations or lost luggage, which could make or break their trip. Anything other than a complete omni-channel approach will not provide the depth of service customers expect. Brands such as Frontier Airlines, which willingly cut back on customer contact, will do so at their peril.

Innovation from low-cost carriers is vital to getting ahead and staying ahead. The success, or failure, of Frontier’s strategic decision will act as a yardstick for the rest of the industry. Competitor airlines will do well to ring-fence voice channels as part of a broad omni-channel strategy. Competitors such as Delta are already making gains in the CX battle: letting customers leave video feedback to improve services and investing more in airport lounge experiences, which earned them first place during the battle for airline CX during the height of the pandemic. Customers expect more, not less, effective interactions with brands across all sectors.

Brands can drive high levels of satisfaction by delivering communications on the customer’s channel of choice. By opening up more channels, there is less pressure on voice channels. However, to fully benefit, brands must adopt an omni-channel approach that meets the customer on their own turf.

13 COMMENTS

  1. In the digital age, the customer is not always right. Does the company know better?

    Your article on the move by Airlines to a phone enabled journey overlooks the current digital engagement of the US population. In a recent survey 7% of Americans have never used the internet and 16% do not have a smartphone.

    I am not saying that 16% of travellers do not have a smartphone but there is a large minority that the airline is missing if they continue to drift towards all mobile access to their services.

    It is for the customers benefit?
    This has been the main marketing message of companies and innovators for the last 20 years however the real benefit is for the company. In truth, it is for the benefit of the company by getting the customer to do all the work, whilst reducing overhead for the company. Has the cost of flights reduced? No, so profits have increased.

    When the signal goes, or the technology has a hiccup the mobile based system is mute. Keeping a legacy system will keep the airline flying.

  2. This is a perplexing decision. Frontier does not exactly have the best reputation in the industry for reliability and CX. Their new annual subscription flight model with all of its limitations is something that would cater both to students, but also to retirees who have flexible schedules which are not as impacted by the restrictions. That latter audience tends to gravitate more to phone support that web-based support. It would be more prudent to look at proactive measures in the customer journey by analyzing the inbound call data to see what is driving those calls and focus on those areas first before cutting off phone support. If that has already been done, then show the data. The article mentions call center agents spending many minutes to find an answer or an agent handling three inquiries at once in non-voice channel rates. The better question is why do customers have to initiate contact with Frontier to find these answers. Their support site is rather clean from a UX POV, so perhaps a study into the tagging within their KB or user search behaviors would uncover some secrets.

  3. This is a bad, and short-sighted, set of decisions by Frontier Airlines; and I totally support both your discussion, and the conclusions reached. Going totally AI/digital is not only a service step too far, it’s WAY TOO FAR. Beyond effort/CES, taking humans, and humanity, away from support and overall CX ultimately leads to poor business outcomes – among both customers and employees – principally due to lower trust. Customers need to have a voice, and a choice, in the array of communication channels. As I’ve written, and believe, for stakeholders, digital transformation isn’t ‘either/or’, it’s ‘and’: https://customerthink.com/digital-transformation-isnt-either-or-in-reality-its-and/

  4. Frontier Airlines tag line is “Low fares done right.”. I say you get what you pay for. For years companies have a public focus on CX while in the boardroom they ask what the customer values and should their company provide a service that the customer is not willing to pay for. The answer to the question for Frontier is will they be able to more efficiently and more effectively handle the volume of inquiries digitally rather than over the telephone.

    An analogy: I once had a client with 200 salespeople that targeted six visits per year to customers. We recommended that they cut back the number of visits from six to three but increase the calls from inside sales from negligible to twelve times per year. We suggested that they make this change quietly (an evolution, not a revolution.)

    We completed a benchmark customer service research project at the beginning of the process change and another one year later. Client satisfaction increased. The reason clients stated was that they saw more of their sales rep.
    I’ll bet the most frequent of Frontier frequent flyers will have a private line to call into if they prefer.

    Bottom line, done right satisfaction could increase.

  5. Frontier Airlines’ Net Promoter Score is -61. Looking past the sometimes challenging actionability of NPS, what does a score of -61 tell you about the quality of Frontier’s customer experience, especially the wisdom behind its use of digital as a solo relationship channel?

  6. Michael Lowenstein, I violently AGREE with your observations. Responding to this topic is somewhat difficult in two ways 1. I find it difficult to separate this from my own personal point of view as an airline/travel customer, and 2. I’m an Australian and have no experience of Frontier Airlines. From my personal perspective I refuse to give my custom to any business that does not publish a phone number and/or provide a local address where I can contact a human being. Re my personal view: Experiences with email contact only have shown me how appalling a way this is to resolve problems. Mostly, contact via embedded forms on the website almost guarantees my message will never get any kind of response. I’m fairly sure that behind the web form, there is a next step which prints my message onto paper, then drops it into a wastepaper basket, (possibly setting fire to it to make sure my communication doesn’t go anywhere useful). Re service expectations: In Australia, even if a service is offered at cut price, culturally customers still expect a minimum level of reachability and support no matter how little they pay. Just because you have a low price offering, you don’t get forgiven for having poor service.

  7. Full disclosure. Despite the fact that I have flown millions of miles on both Delta and American, I have never flown on Frontier Airlines. However, looking at this from afar. the decision to not give the customer a choice of communications seems flawed, especially for an activity that involves an important and expensive part of a customer’s life. I am willing to ride on an elevator without an attendant (and I can always take the stairs). I am willing to check in to a hotel without the involvement of a front desk clerk. But if I am looking for a customized solution to a travel hiccup, it is entirely a different story. Let’s say there is a travel issue on a flight I need to take to get to my mother’s funeral, one I have paid hundreds of dollars to take. I need and expect more than “punch 6 if you need…” I enjoy the convenience and time-saving features of service via a smart phone or computer. But, sometimes I need a human. Smart computers are linear, not intuitive; they are mechanical, not empathetic. They can sound real but they are not. Apply the digital-only to many customer service transactions, but leave pricey air travel with a route to a person.

  8. I’m not sure this should be the “clear” choice but it depends on many other aspects of the business. If Frontier Airlines has a technology partner i.e. IBM, SAP, etc. that can develop, implement and manage their data systems and services without going the cheapest technology route it may be a reasonable and profitable option. Frequently, I have had too many bad experiences with the communications of a “live” customer service agent, and far more leans toward dissatisfaction than pleasant or resolving what my needs were at the time ( or being left on hold) for 30+ minutes.
    My suggestion would be to make sure there is a default/disaster that could possibly occur while transitioning over and/or a secondary/disaster recovery in play for systems failure, continued routing errors, or many other issues that are likely to come up. If the technology implemented is the best in the business I would probably give it a go as I said earlier.
    For me getting a live customer agent that is unresponsive, rude, puts you on hold, and cannot resolve your needs is not an airline I would continue to fly.

  9. Quite interesting article. Though growingly everything is becoming digital and it helps companies like Frontier Airlines to cut down cost, there will certainly be a percentage of customers whose CX might not be encouraging. They would still prefer to talk to somebody responsible. However, it is a good experiment to understand if “removing the option to call” will work – need to wait and watch.

  10. I did work for an Airline for long years. Interestingly the also cut down on services and TLC in order to be able to provide cheaper tickets. However, today they are still cutting down, but at the same time hire an CX Expert. I wonder what the ideas and expectations are? Wishing perfect CX on no cost!? I don’t see that working…..

  11. Talking to a real person with competence (!) is very often a driver for trust into a brand. I have experienced many people confirming it. And the phone rang 12h a day.. to my opinion we seem to forget the part of our customers which are either not Digital experts, elderly or just not bothered to talk to bots that don’t give proper answers ….. this group is not to be neglected..

  12. It’s great to see such a diverse range of opinions on this topic and it is clear industry leaders understand the problems that customers will face should more companies retire voice channels.

  13. Frontier Airlines’ recent decision to terminate its phone lines—a seemingly contradictory decision based on what we know about customer experience (CX)—does align with the airline’s present position in the market as a budget airline. This change highlights the question of whether the improved cost efficiency of making this change outweighs the value of being present to customers at times of need with a human touchpoint. On one side, under especially volatile market conditions, it can be a strategic decision to streamline processes, which often requires removing a line of communication that is requiring increased funding; however, other organizations may consider the added costs and time that go into establishing a well-rounded approach to CX, a worthwhile choice that has further instilled a sense of customer loyalty across their company.

    Customer-facing organizations, including airlines, may want to assess the customer journey and operationalize excellence. This is what leading brands like Wyndham Hotel & Resorts are doing, leveraging technologies like real-time agent assist to improve the voice channel and performance. By doing so, brands like Wyndham reinforce their desire to create meaningful experiences and better support their workforce without removing the human element.” Despite all the self service and automation options now readily available, 42% of consumers in the U.S. prefer phone calls to resolve customer service problems. This evidence highlights how the phone channel remains a critical cog in any truly omnichannel approach when it comes to addressing an escalation or emotional need from a customer. Given all the planning that goes into traveling, when something goes wrong logistically, organizations may want to take into consideration how consumers would prefer to be able to connect with a human to address their concerns and speak with a representative who is empathetic in acknowledging the importance of their trip, as this will help to establish customer loyalty for the long-haul.

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