Airlines' technology investments pay off in customer satisfaction scores

J.D. Power has good news and bad news when it comes to the payoff from airline customer satisfaction. IT investments in software, kiosks and reservation systems have paid off. In-flight services need a lot more work.

American Airlines using technology to make its people the competitive advantage The airline believes its people will be the differentiation, so that's where the focus of digital transformation has been over the last few years.

Airline satisfaction is being driven in part by information technology investments in apps, kiosks, digital check-in procedures and other tools, but the in-flight connectivity and entertainment experiences need improvement, according to a J.D. Power study.

At a high level, J.D. Power's 2019 North America Airline Satisfaction Study found that overall airline customer satisfaction has reached its highest level ever. Traditional carriers showed the biggest gains as low-cost airlines lost some ground.

Technology has a lot to do with the customer satisfaction scores. Michael Taylor, travel intelligence lead at J.D. Power, said technology has improved the check-in and reservation processes and boosted overall ratings. Overall airline satisfaction was up 11 points to 773 on a 1,000 point scale.


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Taylor explained that reservation and check-in experiences were the most satisfying portions of the airline experience. "The two highest portions of our study are both dominated by technology. Reservations are driven by software and the Web as airlines realize they have to do better jobs at direct booking," explained Taylor.

Check-in experiences are driven by the efficiency of kiosk systems. "We've seen consistent improvements on the check-in process," said Taylor. "It is human nature to not want to stand in a line. You can avoid most or all of it with the app and kiosks."

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Those rankings and technology's impact represent the good news. The bad news is that airlines are struggling with in-flight connectivity and entertainment services. This in-flight services conundrum will be harder to fix with technology, said Taylor.

"In-flight experience is lagging across all airlines. There are two schools. They give you a screen on the back of the seat and make it easy. Or 95% of people have their own screens," explained Taylor. "The problem with the first one is maintenance and expense. Screens in the back of seats is easy, but airlines feel like they are constantly being stuck with the iPhone 4. It was great for a time."

In addition, Taylor said retrofitting airplanes means downtime and costs with installing screens. As a result, airlines have opted for in-flight connectivity, but streaming is not available or not good at all. Meanwhile, airlines get the blame for bad experiences even if the connectivity provider is a player like Gogo, which just outlined plans for aviation 5G.


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Today, the back-of-the-seat infotainment experience would be better and solve about 80% of the issues, said Taylor, who added "but it is an expensive proposition."

Taylor said in-flight connectivity is likely about 5 years away from being what you'd expect it to be. Airlines often have as many as three generations of streaming services and experiences can vary dramatically even on the same airline depending on the plane.

Taylor said there will be a time when an airline customer will be instantly logged on to the Internet because the systems would remember her just like your home does. Identity and automatic log-ins would be enabled by loyalty program identifications. "That's what has to happen," said Taylor. "8 years from now logging into the in-flight experience will be just like you're at home."