SERVICE QUALITY AND CUSTOMER SATISFACTION IN AIR TRANSPORTATION

 

Athina N. Papageorgiou, PhD

Tourism and Hospitality Management, TEI of Athens, Greece

 

Introduction

Air travel is a tourism product with high demand; this results in a strong competition among airlines leading the air travel industry to a constant effort to improve service quality in order to meet customer’s needs (Shukla, 2013).  The purpose of this study was to detect the factors that influence air travel customers’ satisfaction using the Kano model (Kano 1993).

 

1. The air-travel product

The air travel “product” is a high-quality service that the customer gets in return for the airplane ticket that he paid.  Its main characteristics, representing also the criteria by which the customer will select the air carrier, are (LaMondia et al, 2009, Park et al, 2004, Sultan and Simpson, 2000):

·        The type of aircraft, focusing on seat-type and comfort, spacious toilets, multimedia and soundproof interior,

·        The flight schedule, focusing on flight times’ convenience, multiple available direct-flight destinations, frequency of flights to most popular destinations, timekeeping (consistency in arrival and departure times) and short intervals between flights in stopovers,

·        Ticket price and payment policy and

·        High-quality customer service provided at purchase and also before, during and after the flight.    

 

2. Factors affecting customers’ satisfaction

The vast majority of airline customers are leisure and business travelers.  First class travelers are relatively few but their service meets the highest demands, as these customers are the subject of an excessive competition between major airlines in long distance (usually transatlantic) flights.  This superior quality is part of the company’s image in the airline industry, rewarded by international institutions and web pages (worldtravelawards.com/, britishtravelawards.com/, worldairlineawards.com/Awards/ best_first_class_airlines.html and travelsort.com/blog/10-best-international-first-class-seats-for-award-travel).  The same is true for the business class service (travelsort.com/blog/the-15-best-first-and-business-class-airline-awards-in-2012 and businesstravelawards.com/), that is partly the subject of this study.

Our research on quality service demands of leisure and business travelers identified that both groups have nonnegotiable demands on safety, adequate information, guidance, timekeeping, innovation and politeness (Chenm et al, 2015, Tolpa, 2012, LaMondia, Snell and Bhat, 2009), but also exhibit certain differences: for instance price, comfort, time and quality of service are hierarchically the primary criteria for leisure travelers, while time, comfort and quality of service are all primary concerns of business travelers, followed by price as a secondary impact (Baker 2013, Tolpa, 2012, Archana and Subha 2012, Ringle et al, 2011, Atilgan et al, 2008, Sultan and Simpson 2000).  Furthermore, important differences within each group can be seen: the leisure travelers’ group, regarding price and quality of service can be sub-categorized to schedule and low-cost flight customers, while the business travelers’ group regarding the length of flight, can also be sub-categorized to short and long distance travelers (Ariffin et al, 2010, Fourie and Lubbe, 2006, Chen and Chang 2005, Park et al. 2004, Gilbert and Wong 2003, Chang and Yeh 2002).

 

2.1. Quality of service during information provision and ticket sale

Professionalism, good knowledge of the product and will to serve are the most important factors for customers’ satisfaction during the sales process.  For this, it is necessary to provide:

·        Immediate and efficient service: there should never be a long call-waiting time while the best use of reservation systems (CRS-GDS) should be achieved, i.e. quick search, direct response to booking requests, compliance with booking procedures etc.

·        Record and fulfillment of the customers’ special service requirements (SSR): special meals, wheelchair use, family consecutive seats etc.

·        Clarity in presentation and analysis of the product: price, flight times, time zones, connecting flights, participation in frequent flyer programs etc.

·        Excellent airline staff attitude: both the ground handling staff and the flying staff should act as qualified professionals and this can be achieved by appropriate training, updating and audit.

The same quality of service should also be provided by the travel agency staff, if the passenger chooses to buy his ticket from an agency.  The agent should understand completely customer needs and propose the best solutions regarding air carrier, price, flights and other details of the air travel.  This requests good knowledge of the industry and use of reservation systems.  Finally, as many passengers nowadays buy directly from the internet, airlines and travel agencies build easy-to-use and friendly sites where the customer can obtain useful information compare prices, buy directly using a credit card and also have discounts and payment and refund agreements (Shukla, 2013, Amiruddin 2013, Archana and Subha 2012, Tolpa, 2012).  

 

2.2. Customer service before the flight

When arriving at the airport, quality service before the departure must involve

·        Quick check in. Separate business class check-in.  Self check-in.

·        Quick luggage deposit.  Separate business class luggage check.

·        Customer guidance about security check, shopping and boarding.

·        Help provided to elderly and disabled by using electric vehicles.

·        Pleasant and helpful staff with foreign language skills.

·        Comfortable boarding lounge.  VIP lounge even in small airports.

·        Passenger information in multiple locations.

 

2.3. Customer service during the flight

When embarking, quality service must include

·        Comfortable seats (able to recline to bed position in long distance flights)

·        Wide main corridor-ease to walk to toilets

·        Clean and adequate toilets

·        Passenger comfort (pillows, blankets, even slippers in long distance flights)

·        Excellent behavior of the aircraft personnel (interest, kindness, service, knowledge of foreign languages, help with luggage settlement, information about the destination)

·        Quality catering-multiple menus (vegetarians, religious restrictions)

·        Entertainment (newspapers, magazines, multiple videos, multiple style music audio)

·        Additional facilities if needed (fax and e-mail service)

·        Care for families (consecutive seats, children's toys, baby sets, toilet facilities)

·        Gifts

·        Quality duty-free goods

 

2.4. Customer service after the flight

The after-the-flight quality service usually involves

·        Transfer from one airport to another by means of the company (if connecting flight departs from a nearby airport, i.e. Gatwick and Heathrow).  Transfer to hotel if stoppage overnight.

·        Quick and effective response in cases of lost or damaged luggage.

·        Guidance towards car-hire or taxi hub.

·        Arrangements if the passenger has to change destination or cancel return.

·        Customs and consular facilities.

Customer satisfaction means that the passenger will probably re-select the air carrier in the future, express satisfaction in social media and company site and provide mouth-to-mouth publicity among family and friends.

 

3. Quality satisfaction of customers’ needs

According to the Kano model, customer’s satisfaction can be divided into three categories:

·        Satisfaction of basic needs: these are the basic needs or requirements that the customer expects that will probably be met

·        Satisfaction of expected needs: these are needs or requirements that the client would like to be met, but he does not count them as absolutely necessary

·        Satisfaction of exciting needs: these are needs that the client had no understanding or knowledge of, or he considered them beyond expectations – offering them results in a very pleasant surprise and an exciting experience.

Applying the Kano model to the various findings of the many important studies of the world literature analyzed in this study we can produce a synthesis concerning air travel customer satisfaction.  Tables 1, 2 and 3 show the basic, expected and exciting needs of the various groups of travelers described above.

 

Discussion

Quality service expectations in air travel are extremely important in consumer’s behaviour (Parasuraman et al., 1985) as they affect their satisfaction and also lead to buying decisions (Park et al, 2004).  Airline passengers understand service quality as a multi-dimensional variable (Parasuraman et al, 1988) and satisfaction is measured by overall service experience based on various factors, including the perception of service quality and also their mood, emotions and other social and economic factors (Tolpa 2012).  This concept, based on the premise that customers’ assessment leads to a gap between expectations and perceptions of actual performance, has been used by many researchers to measure airline service quality (Sultan and Simpson, 2000, Fick and Ritchie, 1991).  When expectations are exceeded, customers think that they receive high quality service and this surprises them.  When expectations are not met, customers think that service quality is unacceptable while, when expectations are confirmed by perceived service, they find quality satisfactory.  However, if quality is less than expected, it results in severe disappointment that has greater effect than the excitement produced by quality that exceeds their expectations (Tolpa 2012, Atilgan et al, 2008 Fitzsimmons and Fitzsimmons, 2001). This means that airlines should only offer services that they are capable of delivering, as this differentiates them from the other airlines in terms of service quality. Furthermore, airlines should adopt strategies that enhance passengers’ satisfaction by exceeding desired service levels, dealing effectively with non satisfied customers and confronting customer complaints positively.  Early confront of customers complaints and quick resolution is therefore very important to change customer’s impression and increase satisfaction (Makarand 2012).  The bottom line is passenger’s loyalty; profit and growth are stimulated primarily by customer loyalty that is a direct result of customer satisfaction (Amiruddin, 2013, Jones et al, 2002, Lee et. al. 2001, Heskett et al, 1997).

The airline industry nowadays faces many challenges (cutting costs, managing fluctuating demand and meeting quality requirements), while trying to maintain superior quality: service quality has become a major area of attention because of its strong impact on business performance, lower costs, return on investment, customer satisfaction, customer loyalty and higher profit (Masarrat and Jha, 2014, Tolpa 2012, Cochran and Craig, 2003, Berry and  Zeithaml, 2001, Berry,  Parasuraman and Zeithaml, 2001, Rust and Oliver, 1994).  The accurate content of service quality however still remains controversial in the world literature, as it is highly personalized leading researchers to propose several confusing types of categorization (Gronroos 1982, Parasuraman et al. 1988, Rust and Oliver, 1994, Dabholkar and Thorpe 1994, Brady and Cronin 2001): it is clear though that passengers’ quality perception is largely based on their evaluation of the outcome quality, the interaction quality and the environmental quality of service (Brady and Cronin, 2001).  The delivery of high-quality service therefore became a must for air carriers in order to meet the market pressure (Ostrowski et al., 1993) and companies tried hard to differentiate from their competitors (Stafford, 1996, Angur, 1999; Bahia and Nantel, 2000; Sureshchandar et al, 2002): surprisingly, a survey revealed that passengers could not differentiate between carriers (Ott 1993), while the emergence of low cost airlines has raised doubts on the impact of services provided (Saha and Theingi, 2009).  The fact also that airline services are delivered by sales agents, airport authority, catering companies, handling agents and many others may confuse passengers on who delivers service (Chang and Keller, 2002). Therefore, an effective coordination of the various activities delivered by many organizations is needed for improving airlines’ service quality (Masarrat and Jha, 2014).

The services provided by airline companies have certain limitations by their fixed and flexible characteristics.  The fixed ones are subject to seat size, cargo storage, type of airplane, and airplane maintenance and the flexible ones include the in-flight meal service and the level of service provided by flight attendants. (Chang et al, 1998).  Another important issue is employees’ training and continuous education (Shukla, 2013).

In the leisure travel group low-cost carriers are succeeding full service carriers, as the main issue today is cost, despite passenger’s occupation (Shukla, 2013, Fourie and Lubbe, 2006).  Passengers of low cost carriers also think that caring is the most important dimension of service quality, followed by reliability and responsiveness, and this is why any similar sigh increases their satisfaction (Ariffin et al, 2010).  On-line booking, on-time performance, airport check-in, schedule/flight accommodations, gate location, aircraft interior, flight attendants, multiple meals selection, seat comfort, digital service quality, personal entertainment, safety, post-flight service and frequent flyer programs are all very important in several studies on business and long-distance travelers, affecting their overall satisfaction (Masarrat and Jha, 2014, Amiruddin, 2013, Archana and Subha, 2012, LaMondia et al, 2009).

In conclusion, airlines should be able not only to meet passengers’ needs, but also to exceed their expectations, in order to increase fame, loyalty and profit.  We think that many good ideas can be materialized to increase passengers satisfaction and exceed their expectations since in the vast majority of cases these particular offers are not costly but only demand good coordination with other participants of the airline industry, merely airport authorities, handling agents, security and lost and found.    

 

Table 1.  Criteria for customer satisfaction before the flight

 

 

Need

Leisure travelers

Business travelers

Low-cost carriers

Schedule flights

 

Short distance flights

Long distance flights

 

Basic

 

e-booking

Very low fares

and offers

Flight security

Friendly site

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quality sales service

e-booking

Low fares

and offers

Flight security

Ease of payment Friendly site

Free luggage allowance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quality sales service

e-booking

Immediate response on requests

Flight security

Timekeeping

Precise and convenient flight times

Last time changes

Frequency of flights 

FFP

Ease of payment Friendly site

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quality sales service

e-booking

Immediate response of requests

Flight security

Timekeeping

Precise and convenient flight times

Last time changes

Ability of reservation changes in emergencies

Frequency of flights

FFP

Ease of payment Friendly site

Ability to book certain seats

Connecting flights

Convenient flight times

FFP

Friendly site

Priority Check-in 

Priority in luggage handling

VIP lounge with computer facilities 

 

 

Expected

 

Passenger information on embarking and delays

 

 

 

More luggage

Help for embankment

Constant passenger information on embarking and delays

 

 

Fast and separate check-in

More luggage and  hand-bag allowance

Priority in luggage handling

Ability of reservation changes in emergencies

 

 

More luggage and  hand-bag allowance

Gifts

 

Exciting

Quality sales service

Increased permitted luggage weight

 

 

Fast and separate check-in

 

Ability to book certain seats

Upgrade

VIP lounge

 

Ticket discount

Future flight ticket upgrade

 

 

 

 

Table 2.  Criteria for customer satisfaction during the flight

 

 

Need

Leisure travelers

Business travelers

Low-cost carriers

Schedule flights

 

Short distance flights

Long distance flights

 

Basic

 

Pleasant cabin crew

Neat aircraft

Serving special needs, eg wheelchair

Passenger information during flight

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pleasant and helpful cabin crew fluently speaking foreign languages

Neat aircraft

Serving special needs, eg wheelchair

Comfortable seats

Passenger information during flight

Duty free

Catering

Basic entertainmentη

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pleasant and helpful cabin crew

Neat aircraft

Serving special needs, eg wheelchair

Separate seats section

Comfortable seats

Passenger information during flight

Basic entertainmentη

 

 

 

 

 

Pleasant and helpful cabin crew distinct fluently speaking foreign languages

Crew arrangement of hand baggage

More handbag allowance

Neat aircraft

Serving special needs, eg wheelchair

Separate seats section

Comfortable recliner seats

Special request catering (i.,e. vegetarian)

Passenger information during flight

Duty free

Advanced  entertainmentη

 

 

Expected

 

Comfortable seats

Basic entertainmentη

 

 

Special request catering (i.,e. vegetarian)

Advanced entertainment

 

 

More handbag allowance

Crew arrangement of handbags

Advanced  entertainmentη

Caring for families and babies

Baby toys

 

 

In-craft use of certain facilities (i.e. internet  access)

Catering with a variety of menu choices

Free spirits

Gifts

 

 

 

Exciting

 

Caring for families and babies

Baby toys

Catering

 

 

 

 

 

More handbag allowance

Caring for families and babies

Baby toys

Gifts

 

 

Specific crew

In-craft use of certain facilities (i.e. internet  access)

Special request catering (i.,e. vegetarian)

Free spirits

Gifts

Duty free

 

 

Upgrade to first class

a la carte menu from executive chef & wine list from sommelier

 

 

Table 3.  Criteria for customer satisfaction after the flight

 

 

 

Need

Leisure travelers

Business travelers

Low-cost carriers

Schedule flights

 

Short distance flights

Long distance flights

 

Basic

 

Lost and found service

Damaged luggage compensation

 

 

Lost and found service

Damaged luggage compensation

Customs and consular facilities

 

Lost and found service

Damaged luggage compensation

Customs and consular facilities Small gifts

Quick response to complaints

 

 

Lost and found service

Damaged luggage compensation

Customs and consular facilities

Small gifts

Change return ticket if needed

Escort to rent-a-car hubs

Quick response to complaints

 

 

Expected

 

Customs and consular facilities

 

Small gifts

Quick response to complaints

 

 

 

Escort to rent-a-car hubs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Refund in exceptional cases

Transport to nearby airports

Transfer to certain hotels

Gifts

 

 

Exciting

 

Quick response to complaints

 

 

Transfer to certain hotels

 

 

Transfer to certain hotels

Discounts in partner hotel rates and car rental companies

Change return ticket or refund in exceptional cases

 

 

Transfer to passenger hotel

Discounts in partner hotel rates and car rental companies

Future upgrade

 

 

 

 

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