The 3 Takeaways From Quality Failure in the Airline Industry in 2017


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No one likes flying. The mere fact that you are in a metal tube hurtling through the air in a domain that mother nature reserved for the birds is an unnatural, anxious experience – not to mention getting up close and personal with strangers for hours on end quietly wrestling for the armrest (the middle seat should get two armrests in case you were wondering).

Flying was always going to be a difficult service to do well; so much of what upsets passengers isn’t actually in the hands of the airline – security screenings and passport checks being two of them. However, you might expect the airlines to understand that because air travel is one of the most stressful situations a person can go through in their lifetime, that would be the perfect opportunity to offer a quality service that goes above and beyond consumer expectation – after all, creating customer evangelists is supposed to be what it’s all about.

Sadly, this is not the case for air travel. In fact, the model of air travel operates on a bizarre hierarchical system that seemingly punishes passengers who opt for the ‘no-frills’ approach to air travel and defies a golden rule of the service industry which is, if you’re going to offer your customer a service, make sure you deliver and treat them like a human while doing it.

The lower-priced services airlines offer are almost an excuse to single out passengers for poor treatment whereas the people who pay more, get more – with a smile.

The recent controversy with United Airlines brought home something that had been bubbling under the surface of the consumer populous for some time. Flyer Rights spokeswoman Kendall Creighton points to a building rage within consumers who have had enough of the sub-par product they have been made to swallow for years.

“A lot of the incivility we’ve seen lately comes from stress. From the moment you arrive at the airport and have to deal with the automated self-check-in kiosks that have replaced human counter staff, to the long lines at security, to the gotcha fees at the gate, then maybe an announcement that your flight’s overbooked – and if it isn’t, then it’s guaranteed to be 100 per cent full.”

Unruly passenger incidents have increased from one incident in every 1600 flights to one in every 1200 flights. Several practices within the airline industry have led to this noticeable increase in unruly passenger behaviour and these practices are, shall we say, archaic. So much so that they have prompted the Canadian Government to table a Passenger Bill of Rights for air travel.

The United Airlines debacle where Doctor David Dao was literally dragged from the plane, brought to the surface an uncomfortable truth within the industry that places profit over quality and over the customer experience. The way that airline employees treat their customers points to a company culture that does not put quality or customer at the heart of their values.

There is a hierarchy in air travel. This dictates your probability of getting bumped from a flight you paid for due to the time of booking, your frequent flyer status and of course, how much you paid for your ticket. This is explained in United’s contract of carriage: “the priority of all other confirmed passengers may be determined based on a passenger’s fare class, itinerary, status of frequent-flyer program membership, and the time in which the passenger presents him/herself for check-in without advanced seat assignment.”

Joseph Turow, professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvannia, explains that, “Irrespective of any individual fare, they (airlines) have this overarching notion of who their valued customers are, and what their lifetime value is…because of the structure of the system, they can take advantage of it to the point of being mean to people.”

Airline bumping is a common practice in the airline industry. Every year around 50,000 people with valid tickets are bumped off flights due to overbooking – an intentional practice. The airlines know that some passengers won’t show up for flights and as such, they can make extra profit from selling a seat twice. On the rare occasion that everyone does show up for their flight or seats need to be assigned to crew, a passenger gets bumped.

You might think that air incidents and passenger unhappiness is more prevalent in low-cost carriers, there is even a suggestion that because air travel is cheaper, those who couldn’t afford to fly before are flying more frequently causing an increase in incidents. However, Tim Colehan from the IATA states that ”It affects all different kinds of airline and it’s in first, business and economy [classes] and all regions of the world. It really is a global problem.”

That suggests to me that there is an industry-wide problem. ‘Maximising profitability’ is at the heart of many airline practices and spreads into the creation of a values system that punishes consumers for not purchasing the high-end products. There is no problem with offering first class passengers more perks than their counterparts in economy but they are still customers, they are still buying a product that a company has offered so they must be valued.

Emirates were voted the number one airline in the world at the 2016 Skytrax World Airline Awards (an award that is largely based on user reviews). How did this happen? Sir Tim Clark, President Emirates Airline, has stated that: “Emirates has always put our customers at the heart of what we do, and we work hard to deliver the very best experience possible to our customers at every touchpoint, every day, all around the world. We constantly invest in our product and services, both on the ground and in the air. We listen carefully to our customers, and then relentlessly challenge ourselves to deliver and exceed expectations.”

That quote speaks volumes about three elements:
1. Putting customers at the heart of business – each and every time by listening to and understanding their needs and wants.
2. Quality is inseparable from customer focus – It doesn’t matter what product or service your customer is buying whether it be the basic or full package, quality matters.
3. Continual improvement – Let competitors stick to offering the status quo and chase continual improvement “relentlessly”.

Brad Fagan
Brad is the Content Marketing Manager at Triaster- a Business Process Improvement company. He mostly writes business and quality improvement blogs, trying to provide unique insights and inject a bit of satire wherever possible.


  1. Spot on! Air Travel can be done right, I know I have done it.

    The problem is the culture in the industry has not changed in the last 30 years that I have been in it. For a brief time I ran a start-up airline with a mission – not to do what everyone else is doing! The 1-2-3 points mentioned was our mission!

    We ran for three months and it worked fine, the customers loved the service and the employees actually had fun at work!

    Sadly the owners ran out of cash and patients in waiting for the return in their investment.

    We knew we had a winning model in the U. S., we worked hard at the details you mentioned in the article and not follow the status quo in the industry.

    I know that it is possible, it just takes the desire to truly embrace that you are selling a product to a person – we have forgotten that.

  2. Hi Bert, thanks for the comment. Airlines have gotten away with offering a sub-par service for quite some time now.

    The Atlantic wrote a really good article titled ‘Why Airlines Can Get Away With Bad Customer Service’ – I encourage you to read it.


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