‘Chaos’, ‘shame’, ‘misery’. On the morning of Tuesday 29th August, there wasn’t a single national news outlet – from the Daily Mail to Sky News – that didn’t feature at least one of these words in its headlines following the UK air traffic control system crash.
While these articles followed a particularly unusual event, the stories of passengers abandoned in departure lounges, dealing with limited support on the ground, closed call centres and crashing airline apps are all too familiar.
There’s also reason to believe these problems will only get worse. Airspace congestion, war and climate change are contributing to the disruption that began with Covid. The result has been additional stress and expense for airlines and passengers alike.
This inevitably harms customer satisfaction – at CMAC, we surveyed 1,100 UK adults who had taken at least one flight in the last year, finding that most believed disruption had become worse and many were dissatisfied with the airline response.
Our survey also found a significant number of passengers had been forced to arrange and pay for their own alternative accommodation, transport and meals when dealing with delays.
Given the current wave of employee strikes – alongside the other issues airlines face – we strongly believed it was time for fresh research into how airlines are managing disruption, how this is affecting passenger satisfaction and the key steps to retaining customer loyalty.
We conducted our research with the aim of gaining passenger insights that would empower airlines – allowing them to understand how people feel about the existing response to delays and cancellations, which allows airlines to address the areas where they might be falling short.
A worsening problem affecting customer loyalty
Our research found that the majority of people (71%) have experienced airline disruption, while most believe it is getting worse. Almost half of UK travellers also said their experience of flight delays or cancellations – and the service they received – made them less likely to fly with that airline in the future.
The good news is that embracing a better approach is very achievable. Our data shows that by just making sure a human employee is on hand when disruption occurs can make a world of difference.
We also found that passengers are frequently expected to make their own alternative travel and re-accommodation arrangements when flights are disrupted – 53% who had booked alternative transport following a delay said they did so without airline support, while some 61% of people who booked last-minute hotel rooms received no airline support.
If this continues the industry’s reputation is at risk, however it offers an opportunity for airlines to change their approach. Every passenger with a bad experience is also someone whose long-term loyalty could be won through a better approach when things go wrong.
Empowered teams and the human touch
We examined what this better approach might look like and our data shows the importance of an empathetic, human touch during flight cancellations or delays.
We found that while passengers are broadly happy to embrace technology when it comes to booking and checking in, if disruption happens, they want to be able to speak to a human.
Some 82% of passengers said they want a real person to help them when things go wrong, with 77% saying that human support will always be superior to technology in times of crisis. As many airlines move towards ‘digital transformation’ and are trialling AI and technology-only solutions, this is an important customer view to consider to ensure satisfaction and repeat business.
Technology needs to be used as an enabler, not a replacement, for airline and ground handling staff to provide quick, in-person and meaningful re-accommodation and alternative transport solutions to disrupted passengers.
Realising the potential of this human workforce means ensuring staff receive the right training and tools, enabling them to focus on passengers and reassure them that action is being taken, while providing regular updates and realistic timeframes.
Alongside having staff on hand to answer questions, tools – such as user-friendly apps – can also be used to help travellers easily find and book alternative travel or hotel rooms on their own terms. Meanwhile, airlines can also make use of live dashboards to gain full visibility and control when supporting customers during times of disruption.
With these things in place, there’s a big opportunity for airlines to win the long-term loyalty of passengers, despite the challenges our industry faces.
Download the full whitepaper to gain insight into passenger pain points and how airlines can more effectively meet expectations and earn long-term loyalty.