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This past week we saw an all-too familiar story in the UK headlines – a weekend of disruption, confusion, and ‘chaos’ for holidaymakers and travellers alike due to an air traffic control issue across the country. Following a spring and summer of several travel issues caused by industrial action, flight cancellations, and staff shortages, UK consumers are turning again to social media to vent their frustration at a lack of communication from the airlines.

This latest mass disruption wasn’t directly down to the airlines themselves. However, they are the first point of contact when things go wrong, and they would certainly be expected to provide concise and up-to-date information regarding any unexpected travel restrictions, cancellations, or delays. From a service perspective, often a crisis is a good opportunity to demonstrate what good service can really look like – ‘the moment of truth’ and the wider positive impact this can have on how we feel about an organisation.

While we can’t discuss these latest issues without acknowledging that it has been a challenging period for the airlines – they are still recovering from the pandemic, whilst struggling with staff shortages and yearly industrial action – it is worth reflecting that the same customer service issues come up each time there is disruption, so perhaps we should be asking why the sector isn’t learning from the previous challenges.

A sector under scrutiny

Airlines have been consistently performing poorly as a sector when it comes to customer service. In our latest UK Customer Service Index, published in July, average satisfaction with airlines was 73.7, a drop of 4.6 points compared to a year ago.

If you dig into the details further, three of the four complaint handling measures (handling of the complaint, staff attitude, and speed of resolving your complaint) have dropped by at least two points (out of 10) compared to July 2022. On top of this, earlier this month consumer rights groups and travel agents called for regulators to be given more powers to act on flight cancellations – with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) complaining they have an insufficient toolkit to penalise airlines.

From all these challenges, we should now be asking what lessons can airlines learn from this and other crises over the last three years to improve poor customer service and get the regulators back onside?

Communication is key for customer service in a crisis

Firstly, it is imperative that airlines respond quickly and efficiently when there is disruption, taking control of the conversation with customers and engaging in a clear and effective way. The customer will ultimately view the airline as the problem if communication is poor, so while we can’t stop or predict these issues, we can certainly make sure we are keeping customers informed – particularly of their options and rights when left stranded by cancellations.

Secondly, airlines need to see these challenges as an opportunity to revisit their long-term customer service investments and get ahead of competitors with an improved strategy. The aviation industry is an extremely competitive one, and a strong customer service offering is a huge differentiator – particularly when consumer confidence is low.

Lastly, enhancing customer loyalty could potentially head off the need for increased regulatory powers and the financial consequences that flow from this. Failing to act now will invite further regulatory scrutiny, at a time when the sector is already under unprecedented pressure.

It is always easy to criticise when we are not in the thick of the issue, but I do think that the recent challenges should make us all reflect on how good our service strategies are – especially when we are under pressure. How good are we at responding to genuine crisis situations and have we pared back our service to such an extent that when a crisis hits, we really have no real plan B or back up to take the strain.

What is clear is that where we put customers at the heart of our business strategy and reflect appropriately on our risk mitigations when things do go wrong, we at least are in a better position to respond effectively and potentially make a positive impact for our customers and brands.

Jo Causon

Jo joined The Institute as its CEO in 2009. She has driven membership growth by 150 percent and established the UK Customer Satisfaction Index as the country’s premier indicator of consumer satisfaction, providing organisations with an indicator of the return on their service strategy investment.

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