To many American travelers, airline quality is an oxymoron. Ted J Kredir, director of hobby sales for Dallas-based trading card company, Pinnacle Brands, Inc., complains of frequent flight cancellations, late arrivals, and lousy food. To the surprise of skeptical passengers, the gripes are not falling on deaf ears. After years of focusing on paring expenses, such major airlines as American, Delta, and Continental are stepping up their quality efforts. Cost-cutting "diverted our attention from the nuts and bolts of out business," concedes American Airlines Chief Executive Robert L Crandall. "Our customers have noticed."
American Airlines, which once dubbed itself the "on-time machine" placed a dismal ninth among 10 carriers in on-time rankings for the third quarter of 1996. So Crandall told managers at the next meeting that leading all industry-quality ratings is their top job for 1997. An American spokesperson will not provide specifics, but says: "We are talking about a lot of operational things like customer comfort on board airplanes."
At Delta Air Lines, Inc., customer complaints have nearly doubled since 1994; CEO Ronald W Allen blames the pursuit of lower costs. "In some cases we did cut too deeply," he says. Trans World Airlines, Inc., now in the cellar for on-time and customer complaint rankings by the Transportation Department, is getting the message too. After on-time arrivals dropped under 50 per cent during the holidays and cancellations climbed, managers warned workers to get back to basics.
Underscoring the quality drive is the stunning turnaround at Continental Airlines, Inc., where for two years CEO Gordon M Bethune has hammered away at the theme. Once near the bottom of transportation rankings, Continental now has one of the best ratings for on-time performance, baggage handling, and customer complaints. In 1996, they won the prestigious J D Power & Associates, Inc., award for the highest customer satisfaction on long-haul flights. Bethune claims to be grabbing marketing share among business travelers from American and others. "We've been kicking their butts," boasts Bethune.
Jaded coach passengers, however, are not expecting first-class treatment anytime soon. "The product is bad, and it is going to stay that way as near as I can tell," says Ed Perkins, editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letters. It is up to the airlines to prove such doubters wrong.
- What risk do airlines take when all of them have the same goal-improving service quality?
- Should the airlines focus on business travelers or consumers? Why?