The Airline CX Index: Top traveler insights to improve the airline customer experience

| September 26, 2017
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Airlines aren’t known for delivering delightful customer experiences. In fact, in Forrester Research’s own U.S. Customer Experience Index, 2017, not one airline received “excellent” or even “good” scores. And yet, according to Forrester, “customer experience leaders grow revenue faster than CX laggards, drive higher brand preference, and can charge more for their products.” So if excellent CX means more revenue, why the drastic disconnect?

It’s in balancing the return for the business and the return for the customer when airlines will finally be successful. What’s missing now is the “return for the customer” piece. UserTesting VP Brian Smith said it well:

To keep up with the rising demands from the market, airlines need to put the customer at the center of every booking decision, from the desktop web to the in-flight experience.

And for airlines, the customer experience relies heavily on the desktop website where nearly 60% of bookings take place. In an industry where any number of uncontrollable events can impact the traveler’s experience, it makes sense to strengthen such an important manageable component.

To offer a deep and thorough understanding of traveler behavior and motivations, earlier this month we published the Airline Customer Experience (CX) Index, in which 1,000 travelers evaluated the web experiences of the top 10 U.S. airlines based on Ease of Use, Speed, Credibility, Aesthetics, and Delight.

Here are the critical human insights (backed by 1000 travelers!) airlines can use to get started on delivering an exceptional customer experience:

1. Speed: Simplify finding information and completing tasks

Owing to the speed with which travelers could locate flight information and complete tasks, Southwest Airlines edged out the other airlines and received the highest overall ratings. The minimal amount of effort required to achieve their goals made the experience fast and positive. Poles apart, Spirit Airlines received the lowest ratings in the study given the amount of time it took to find the cost of a flight, the additional time required to create an account, and the lack of transparency. Hidden information made travelers distrustful of the airline.

2. Transparency: Be upfront about bag fees

Finding the cost of checking bags was by far the lowest-scoring task, and the most difficult task for travelers on 9 out of 10 of the websites. While some airlines lacked transparency and consistency around baggage fees, others had baggage fees hidden away on a separate page, which required travelers to navigate away from their flight search results page and even lose their search results. Still others presented confusing copy such as “extra bag,” leading travelers to wonder whether this indicated a first checked bag (in addition to a carry-on) or a second checked bag. Finally, travelers felt frustrated when the cost of checking a bag wasn’t revealed until many steps into the process, as was the case with Frontier.

3. Design: Aesthetics go a long way

Credibility was the highest-scoring factor, due to most airlines’ well-established brand reputation; however, Aesthetics impacted Credibility considerably. For Virgin America and Alaska, two airlines that scored high in Credibility, travelers remarked that the clean, professional look of the websites made them confident in the brand. (Alaska bought Virgin America for $2.6 billion in 2016, but not many changes are expected until 2018.)

Likewise, confusing, cluttered, and unintuitive website features that hindered travelers from locating information detracted from their Aesthetics scores and impacted their Credibility and Ease of Use scores.

Exceptional customer experience remains elusive for airlines

It’s worth noting that just meeting expectations isn’t enough to delight travelers today. Seven out of the ten airlines in this study scored lower in Delight than all other attributes. Even as the top performer in the study, Southwest didn’t overwhelmingly exceed customers’ expectations.

UserTesting VP Janelle Estes said it best:

As companies create experiences that are different and ‘game changers,’ we as customers get spoiled by those experiences. Then we expect other companies to be at that level. As customer experiences improve, customer expectations increase as well.

Because customers are primed to expect excellence from the companies they interact with the most, merely providing a positive experience isn’t enough to delight them.

It’s time for airlines to consistently gather human insights across all traveler touchpoints—desktop, mobile site, mobile app, airport, and in-flight—and commit to making improvements to the customer experience.

Learn more

For more traveler insights to improve the airline customer experience, check out the complete Airline CX Index.