The results of Business Travel News’ (BTN) 2016 Airline Survey are out, and the nation’s four major airlines have cause to celebrate, as satisfaction levels among corporate travel clients rose nearly across the board.
Here’s how the big four airlines ranked on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent) in various categories, according to BTN.com.
Distribution – Providing comprehensive published and private content through preferred booking channels.
1. Delta – 4.33
2. American – 3.9
3. United – 3.8
4. Southwest – 3.2
Complaint resolution – Responding quickly and effectively to buyers and travelers.
1. Delta – 4.45
2. Southwest – 3.54
3. United – 3.46
4. American – 3.41
Communication with buyers – Informing buyers of changes in airline management, products, programs, data, reporting, sales and service.
1. Delta – 4.45
2. American – 3.7
3. United – 3.67
4. Southwest – 3.45
Account managers and sales reps – Participating in productive and frequent meetings and holding the power to negotiate agreements, offer options, and make price and service decisions.
1. Delta – 4.43
2. American – 3.51
3. United – 3.51
4. Southwest – 3.31
Customer service for travelers – Timeliness, reliability, cleanliness, support and communication.
1. Delta – 4.43
2. Southwest – 3.78
3. American – 3.51
4. United – 3.46
Networks, partnerships and frequencies – Service to the destinations corporations need to reach.
1. Delta – 4.39
2. United – 3.92
3. American – 3.91
4. Southwest – 3.49
Value – Worth of service levels relative to fares, fees and other services.
1. Delta – 4.04
2. Southwest – 3.96
3. American – 3.56
4. United – 3.34
Analysis, by airline
Despite concerns following years of airline consolidations, the BTN study results show that competition remains strong among the largest carriers. A FINRA representative said that post-consolidation, she’s seen airlines work harder to set themselves apart from one another to earn corporate customer loyalty.
At the same time, U.S. carriers continue to post healthy profits in 2016, which they are investing back into their own products and services.
All four U.S. carriers — American, Delta, Southwest and United — that had enough corporate use to be included in the survey, improved their overall scores. More impressively, every airline improved its scores in all 10 categories with only one exception: United Airlines dropped just four-hundredths of a point on a five-point scale in buyers’ rating of its distribution channels.
Delta lost only a slight edge in its premium over the other three carriers at 4.3 — its total score was 0.77 points above its closest competitor, compared with a 0.9-point difference last year.
Rankings among the other three airlines were a much closer race. American Airlines overall score improved the most from last year, with the airline rising up to second place, pushing both United Airlines and Southwest Airlines down one spot in the rankings.
Delta improves operational performance
Delta Air Lines improved its operational performance for the second year in a row, with Delta’s highest scores in client communications and complaint/problem resolution.
Corporate survey respondents cited the products and services Delta has developed for corporate travel clients, including its Corporate Priority program, which offers benefits and protections to corporate travelers regardless of frequent-flyer status.
Buyers also singled out the Delta Edge reporting program, which expanded to include meetings spend this year. In meetings pricing, Delta beat its competitors by more than a full point in BTN’s survey, the biggest victory margin of any individual category.
American Airlines increased its overall score more than the competition by 0.26 points. Its most significant improvements were related to negotiations: transient pricing, meetings travel pricing and services and amenities.
Last year, American received fewer than 3 out of 5 points in each of those categories. In 2016, all increased above that mark, and American moved from last to second or third in each.
It’s a new day at United Airlines, and many give more than a little credit to new president and CEO Oscar Munoz. While United slipped a place in rankings, it made significant gains in complaint resolution, communication with buyers and customer service for travelers.
One change that boosted customer service scores was a new escalation desk within the sales support organization, reducing a backlog of problems like baggage issues and refunds. Additionally, United has made sales support services more efficient by reducing demand for them, including giving travel agents more leeway in rebooking travelers after schedule changes or irregular operations.
While Southwest trailed its competitors in total score, it also was the only carrier to come within firing range of Delta in any individual category; in overall price and value, it scored only eight-hundredths of a point below Delta.
Southwest has differentiated itself by refusing to charge bag fees — the only major U.S. carrier not to do so — nor change fees. In the past few months, it also allowed A-List and A-List Preferred status members who arrive early to go on standby for earlier flights without paying the fare differentials.
Besides the price-value relationship, Southwest scored highest in communications with buyers and complaint/problem resolution. One reason is that Southwest gave account managers more autonomy to take care of problems when they arise.