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Wed, May 16, 2007

Survey Says Airline Customer Experience Lacking

Airlines Approach Redemption From Different Angles

It seems finances aren't the only things bankrupt from the traveling experience onboard some US airlines, according to a recent survey of passenger complaints.

The University of Michigan released a customer satisfaction survey Tuesday that ranked fresh-from-bankruptcy United Airlines and Delta Air Lines last and next-to-last respectively in the customer happiness department.

AMR Corp.'s American Airlines and Northwest Airlines didn't fare much better, with only marginally better scores. (And yes, the pun was intended -- Ed.)

As in any good recovery program, there is a step one. "The first step in improvement here is to recognize that something is wrong," said Claes Fornell, a University of Michigan business professor and director of the research center that compiled the data.

The airlines insist they are working very hard to improve the experience of their customers, according to the Associated Press, by concentrating their efforts on competent baggage handling and basic human interaction.

"We know the service is not where it should be as far as baggage delivery," said Betsy Talton, a spokeswoman for Atlanta-based Delta. "We're concentrating on that this year so that we see significant improvements."

American spokesman Tim Wagner said there isn't much they can do when flights are delayed because of the weather... a bane of the Fort Worth, TX-based airline for the past several months.

"The one thing we can do is focus on the thing we can control, and that's our face-to-face interaction with customers," Wagner said.

On the other side of the concourse, Southwest Airlines ranked first and was one of only two airlines the survey mentioned by name that improved in terms of customer satisfaction this year as compared to last year. The other was Houston-based Continental Airlines.

"We've done as well as we have up to date by making sure our customers have a rich experience, and that's largely due to our people," said Beth Harbin, a spokeswoman for Southwest, which also is a consistently profitable airline.

During the first quarter this year, about 20,000 people were asked to rate their level of satisfaction as customers of not only the airlines, but of companies in a variety of industries. The American Customer Satisfaction Index was created based on the responses to questions about participants' perception of quality, value and expectations, overall satisfaction and any intentions to be a repeat customer. The survey scored from 1 to 100, with 100 the top score.

Last year, the collective airline industry scored a 65. This year - 63.  Individually, Southwest scored a 76, up from 74 last year; United scored a dismal 56. Then there's Delta, dragging in a 59 and American, a 60. Eagan, MN-based Northwest was just as dismal at 61.

"The same problems that have pulled airline passenger satisfaction down the past few years -- disenchanted employees, increasing fuel costs, bankruptcy, and now also record levels of lost, delayed and damaged luggage -- cause it to drop again," the researchers said in their analysis.

UAL spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said it knows it needs to do a better job giving United customers what they expect, so they hired someone.

"Work is under way to make this a priority," Urbanski said, saying the airline hired an executive last year to lead a brand-new customer service division.

Talton said Delta, which exited bankruptcy April 30, has added new in-flight entertainment and other products aimed at making their employees and passengers happier.

"The morale of Delta people has improved," Talton said. "We know that's important to our customers. That... makes our business run smoothly, but it also is what provides a good experience to our customers."

FMI: www.umich.edu, www.delta.com, www.united.com, www.southwest.com, www.continental.com

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