In the competitive environment of the global hospitality sector, companies are striving to offer excellent service while at the same time remaining financially viable. For airline companies, customer satisfaction is among the key factors affecting future profitability. High customer satisfaction levels provide stability by attracting new and existing customers, whereas low satisfaction scores could be a significant disadvantage in the competitive landscape of the industry. Nevertheless, few recent studies attempted to determine the specific factors contributing to customer satisfaction. Using the Servqual model, this study attempts to determine service items and dimensions having the most prominent impact on customer satisfaction.
Like other businesses working in the hospitality sector, airline companies need to have a strong focus on customer service, assessing and improving it on an on-going basis. Past research suggests that service provided to customers both pre-flight and in-flight has a significant effect on customers’ experiences, which, in turn, affect future airline choices (Chen, 2008; Sun & Kim, 2013). Moreover, due to the variety of online social platforms, customers can now share their experiences with other travelers, thus influencing their decision-making process, too.
For airlines that are able to provide consistent, high-quality service, this offers a useful opportunity to attract new customers and retain previous clients. Companies that do not have a reputation for excellence in customer service, on the other hand, might lose their competitive position. Therefore, maintaining a high quality of service is crucial to airline companies.
Nevertheless, the amount of research on customer satisfaction in the airline sector is relatively scarce. Most importantly, there are few recent studies that have managed to outline and explore all the factors contributing to customers’ experiences with different airlines. By determining the specific factors affecting customer satisfaction with service and future airline choices, it would be possible for many airlines to improve service, thus enhancing their profitability (Wen & Lai, 2010). The present study aimed to determine the most prominent service factors that affected customers’ opinions and experiences.
Despite the fact that customer service excellence could help various airlines to be more profitable, few recent studies connected customer reviews with the specific aspects of airline service. Thus, this research can help to obtain a clearer understanding of the factors affecting customer satisfaction and future choices.
The quality of customer service is a popular topic in hospitality research. In particular, many researchers sought to connect customer satisfaction with service to organizational outcomes, such as profitability and sustainability. For instance, Suki (2014), as well as Steven, Dong, and Dresner (2012) found that in the airline industry, customer satisfaction was strongly connected to profitability in the long term and thus created a significant competitive advantage. Similarly, Sun and Kim (2013) commented on the link between airline performance and customer satisfaction levels.
The key element of customer satisfaction with service quality is the customer’s experience (Suki, 2014). As noted by Laming and Mason (2014), the customer’s experience is based on the impression obtained by the customer from services or products. It can affect future travel choices and purchase intentions both positively and negatively, thus playing an important part in the company’s performance. Service provided to customers includes all types of assistance offered by the airline, including check-in, boarding, in-flight service, frequent flyer programs, and more. Services and products offered by the company have to be able to meet customers’ expectations and needs in order to achieve customer satisfaction (Nameghi & Ariffin, 2013).
Most researchers acknowledge that to measure customer satisfaction, it is essential to determine specific elements that constitute customers’ experiences with the airline. According to Pakdil (2007), the Servqual model distributes services and products provided to customers into five main categories: tangibles, reliability, responsiveness, assurance, and empathy, thus making the evaluation process easier. For example, tangibles refer to the physical side of the customers’ experience: whether or not the seats are spacious, bathrooms are clean, and entertainment is provided throughout the flight (Nadiri, Hussain, Ekiz, & Erdogan, 2008).
Empathy, on the other hand, refers to the crew’s ability and willingness to respond to individual customer’s concerns and needs (Nadiri et al., 2008). Aspects of service affecting customer satisfaction can, therefore, be distinguished into two main categories: human and non-human.
Past research also attempted to determine whether human or non-human factors affect customer satisfaction more prominently. Most scholars agree that intangible factors, such as crew friendliness and responsiveness, are more effective in building customer satisfaction (Namukasa, 2013; Nameghi & Ariffin, 2013). This presents yet another challenge for airlines and researchers, as it is more difficult to measure and evaluate intangible factors. For example, emotional engagement is perceived to be one of the significant aspects of crew members’ relationships with customers (Hapsari, Clemes, & Dean, 2016); however, there is no simple and reliable way to evaluate emotional engagement and to determine if this belief is true.
The research used a qualitative methodology for data collection and analysis. This was justified by the need to obtain a deeper insight into the data. As noted by Anyan (2013), qualitative research methodology provides an opportunity to study the information in depth, thus allowing for a comprehensive exploration of the chosen topic. The primary source of information for the research were customer reviews on three airlines operating in the Asia Pacific region: Air New Zealand, SGA, and Qantas.
A total of 300 reviews were collected from Tripadvisor website and coded by the five aspects outlined in the Servqual model. In addition, specific dimensions of satisfaction addressed in the study included in-flight service, pre-flight service, customer perception, after-flight service, and other customer service. A general comparison between all three airlines was produced using mean and standard deviation calculations to determine the overall levels of satisfaction for each airline considered.
The frequency of items was calculated in percentages, which allowed to see the differences between the airlines in terms of service quality items addressed by the customers. Service quality items explored in the reviews included the attentiveness and friendliness of the cabin crew, quality of food and beverage served, seating comfort, the efficiency of check-in, the competence of the cabin crew, and more. The results were presented in tables for easy access.
The comparison between the three airlines showed that Qantas had the lowest satisfaction levels with both in-flight and pre-flight service. Many customers noted departure and arrival delays, poor seating comfort, and low quality of food. Qantas also had the lowest score in the customer perception dimension, including the competence of the cabin crew and value for money, with only 4 and 1 percent of reviews commenting positively about each of these items, respectively.
The best airline for in-flight customers’ experiences was SGA. About 60 percent of the reviewers left positive comments about the attentiveness and friendliness of the cabin crew, whereas 57 percent commented on the good quality of food and beverage served in-flight. SGA also scored high for searing comfort and the efficiency of check-in. However, the airline also had some weaknesses, pointed out by negative reviews. For instance, it is clear that the quality of food and beverage served was inconsistent, as 11 percent of customers complained about it in their reviews.
Air New Zealand showed consistently high-quality service, which justifies its leading position among the three airlines. The customers of Air NZ were generally satisfied with both in-flight and pre-flight service. There were also fewer complaints about the services provided by Air NZ. For instance, only 1 percent of reviews mentioned the poor quality of entertainment provided in flight and only 5 percent of customers were unsatisfied with food and beverage provided. This was mainly due to the lack of choice or the long wait for meals.
The findings were generally in line with the findings obtained from the literature review. For instance, the results supported the perception that intangible factors have a stronger influence on customer satisfaction than tangible items. The vast majority of positive reviews mentioned the attentiveness and friendliness of the cabin crew (57%). Moreover, the perceived competence of the cabin crew was discussed in 10 percent of the reviews. The quality of food, entertainment, and seating comfort, however, were still important to customers’ positive experiences, which is also supported by previous research (Lee & Ko, 2016).
However, the research also offered some new information that was not addressed in prior studies. First of all, we found that the factors influencing high customer satisfaction were not necessarily the ones determining low customer satisfaction. For example, the “attentiveness and friendliness of the crew” item was ranked first by frequency in positive reviews and third by frequency in negative reviews.
Customers who have had bad experiences with the airlines in question were more than twice as likely to complain about food quality and seating comfort. Secondly, the research found that in-flight service quality items were the key determinants of customer satisfaction. The four key predictors of customer satisfaction were all in-flight service items, whereas the efficiency of check-in and timeliness were ranked 5th and 8th by frequency, respectively.
The research also had some limitations that affect the possibility of generalizing its findings to all airlines. First of all, only 100 reviews on each airline were analyzed, which is a relatively small number given the popularity of air travel. Secondly, only three airlines were considered. Given that only reviews for international flights were included, the majority of reviews were on long flights, which could have affected the results. Finally, no study of customer characteristics such as age or gender was performed. Including these factors in the analysis could help to understand if there is any variation in the results based on the personal characteristics of the reviewers.
Overall, the research offered additional insight into the factors affecting customer satisfaction with airline services. One of the two key findings of the study was that intangibles and in-flight service factors were the main determinants of positive customers’ experiences. This stresses the need for airlines to work on the competence and friendliness of their cabin crews by providing regular training and evaluations. Secondly, the study found that the factor that frequently affects customer satisfaction was different from the factor most often causing dissatisfaction. This offers an interesting opportunity for further research to treat customer satisfaction and dissatisfaction separately to obtain more comprehensive data.
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