Road Warrior

What Airlines Can Do to Win Customers, Build Loyalty

Just about every other week, it seems, results are published that reveal the "goings on" in the airline industry. From on-time arrival performance to mishandled bag rates, the findings are splashed across media — and often take top slots in nightly news programs.

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One survey that does not get as much mainstream exposure focuses on the end user of the airline industry — the leisure and business traveler — and what exactly makes them tick. Its findings are primarily delivered to the airlines themselves with the hope they introduce new services designed to improve the passenger experience.

In its annual Experience Radar, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) dug deep into both leisure and business travelers.

I spoke with the report's author, Jonathan Kletzel, and found out more about road warriors and what airlines can do to attract their business.

PwC broke down business travelers into four unique segments they've named "Meeting Maven Melissa", "Price Matters Paul", "Premier Status Peter" and "Career Starter Craig".

While each travels for business, their individual preferences and travel patterns often vary. Melissa travels less than one time per month, is most likely to switch airline loyalty and generally lives in a smaller community.

Paul is the most price sensitive of the bunch and prefers carriers like Delta and US Airways . Peter travels monthly, lives in a major city, enjoys the perks of elite frequent flier status and is least likely to switch airline allegiance. And Craig prefers carriers like Southwest and JetBlue and is particularly keen on arriving on-time.

What Airlines Can Do to Build Loyalty and Attract Travelers

Add-on ancillary fees, such as those for checked bags and preferential seats, may drive in revenues, but often drive away customers. Airlines should consider all-inclusive fares by bundling a la carte items.

Business travelers tend to seek convenience from elite status, not necessarily luxury. Airlines should — and many do — structure their rewards programs to provide basics such as priority boarding, upgrades, extra legroom seats and rebooking priority.

Delays and cancellations are unavoidable, but the way airlines deal with them can significantly impact customer perception and future purchase behavior. Three in five travelers in the survey mention friendly staff and satisfactory issue resolution are the ways to win them over.

Airlines should also recognize space is shrinking onboard. Whether it be reduced seat pitch or smaller aircraft, business travelers want space and are willing to pay a premium for it. Forty-three percent of travelers surveyed prefer the space of a full-size aircraft and will select to fly on a larger aircraft over a regional jet with limited space.

What's Next in the Airline Industry?

Kletzel says airlines in general have lost focus on operational performance lately, being more concerned with the cost of providing service. He thinks that when mergers and bankruptcies settle down, airlines will be better positioned to focus again on the customer experience.

When I asked him what he thought the next ancillary fee would be, he thinks more airlines will consider some type of overhead bin fee for carry-on bags. Spirit and Allegiant have one today, but major airlines might begin to charge for overhead bin space in a limited fashion.

For more about the survey and to read the detailed results, click here.