The airline industry wants to have it both ways: It wants to be profitable and be loved by its customers.
It nailed the first one, with a projected $19.2 billion in profits this year, thanks to dramatically lower fuel prices and a string of unpopular fare increases.
And the second one? Well, that's a work in progress. In fact, the more successful the airline industry gets, the more customers seem to loathe it. American carriers top a recent list of most-hated airlines and airline complaints are at a 15-year high.
But that isn't stopping them from trying. The domestic airline industry is spending more than $1 billion a month to improve its products and services -- even for economy class customers.
- On Valentine's Day, Delta Air Lines passengers flying between New York’s John F. Kennedy airport and San Francisco or Los Angeles received complimentary mini bottles of Veuve du Vernay Rosé sparkling wine and a three-pack of Baked by Melissa bite-size cupcakes in the main cabin. "We love our customers," said Allison Ausband, the airline's executive in charge of customer service.
- American Airlines earlier this month announced it would include snacks and movies in the price of its tickets, even in economy class. Customers traveling on flights departing prior to 9:45 a.m. will receive Biscoff cookies as part of their fare. On flights departing after 9:45 a.m., passengers will have a choice between cookies or pretzels, rotated on a seasonal basis. "Free" snacks were phased out after 9/11 in an aggressive cost-cutting effort.
- Late last year, United Airlines announced that "free" snacks were back, featuring a morning "stroopwafel" – a Dutch, caramel-filled waffle that "pairs perfectly with coffee or tea" or packaged savory snacks, such as an Asian-style snack mix of rice crackers, sesame sticks and wasabi peas or a zesty-ranch mix of mini pretzel sticks, Cajun corn sticks and ranch soy nuts. It also introduced illycaffe's signature scuro dark roast coffee at its airport club locations. Technically, none of these items are free, but they are now included in the price of your fare.
Airline critics, who are watching the industry report record earnings quarter after quarter, say this is nothing more than a good start. They note that the domestic airline industry has a lot of runway in front of it before it can reclaim the reputation it has lost.
But what about the customers?
Economy class passengers, accustomed to years of dramatically reduced services and amenities, are welcoming the changes. But in interviews, some also pointed out that it isn't the "free" amenities that make a flight better. It's something that costs the airline nothing.
Just ask Tim Pylant, an engineer from La Grange, Texas, who has flown on United several times this year. "The service improvement probably has to do with flight attendant attitudes," he says. "They just seem happier and more helpful than the past. I can't explain it but it does make the flight more pleasant."
Listening to complaints
In fact many say listening to customers makes a big difference.
"Airlines are listening to user complaints," says Jessica Coane, who works for a technology company in Nassau, NY. For example, United Airlines, the legacy airline with the lowest customer-service scores, has a new site dedicated to soliciting customer feedback. And it acts on the suggestions, though not as quickly as some customers might want it to.
What they aren't doing
All those complaints about shrinking seats and legroom in economy class appear to be falling on deaf ears. None of the major carriers are adding space.
Even JetBlue Airways, which famously promised to bring "humanity" to air travel, recently upgraded its main cabin to squeeze more seats into the plane, upping cabin capacity from 150 passengers to 162. Each row will lose two inches of legroom, which is unfortunate, but still not as tight as the average economy cabin.
Industry watchers expect airlines to continue adding more amenities and services this year, given the bright earnings outlook. That is likely to be good news for elite flyers. Airlines tend to lavish the best perks on their business and first-class passengers while tossing economy-class customers an occasional scrap, says Matt Wilson, the co-founder of a tour operator called Under30Experiences.
"I find that the low end-flights are getting worse and the high-end companies are just getting better," he says.
While the domestic airline industry spent $12.1 billion in the first nine months of 2015 on product enhancements, and to make its customer love it more, the precise breakdown is not public knowledge. All of which seems to suggest that some passengers will love the improvements more than others.