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The not-so-secret way airlines can improve in-flight customer satisfaction

by Anke Adenwala , 29.05.2015

Have you ever found yourself on an airplane seven hours into a flight wondering what you were going to do with the last seven hours? I think some of us have spent a lazy Sunday curled up on the couch for 14 hours, but somehow, those same hours on an airplane feel much more painful. Obviously, there are a few factors at play. However, I’m not here to write a diatribe about the comforts (or lack thereof) of air travel.

An Aircraft Interiors Expo was held in Germany in April, showcasing the industry’s increased emphasis and focus on in-flight entertainment. An article covering the expo (4 ways the aviation industry hopes to distract you from cabin crush) cites Patrick Brannelly, a vice president at Emirates saying:

"In 1992, when Emirates was the first to install personal screens on every seat for all classes, including economy class, they recorded a 20% increase in overall customer satisfaction. Why would they think that the ... service is better when the only thing that is changed is the improvement of the entertainment system?"”

Here, Mr. Brannelly, is my answer – designing a better user experience (UX) translates to higher customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Once you step on an airplane, you can’t step off until you’ve arrived at the other end. Sure, some airlines serve marginally better food than others. Sometimes you have a remarkably friendly flight attendant; other times, a remarkably rude one. There is never enough room to get truly comfortable, there really aren’t great ways to move around the plane, and there certainly are no breaks to step off the plane for 5 minutes every now and then, as you might when traveling by train. What sets one experience apart from another is what you can do in the hours that stretch between the sporadic visits from flight attendants.

I would argue that one of the things that helps improve the in-flight experience is control (control over the movies you watch, control over the seat you sit in etc). I was on a flight recently that had no individual screens; the movie they chose to show in the middle of the cabin was full of explosions and fight scenes, something I tend to try to avoid on a plane (because flying makes me nervous anyway). Though I tried to avoid the screen, it was hard not to see it out of the corner of my eye and rather than make the flight go by more quickly, the movie did nothing but make me more anxious. I’d probably pin that down as one my memorably bad flight experiences.

I see personal entertainment systems as a way to give travelers a little control over the time they spend in the air, and to me, it’s not surprising that the customer satisfaction would be improved by giving users (or travelers) control over their surroundings. As a UX professional, I’ve seen this same trend in a number of other areas—users want control over the interfaces with which they interact. They want to be able to design and customize the experiences and products they buy.

This customization trend will continue. With the focus on in-seat entertainment and in-flight wifi, the aviation industry recognizes this. As customers become accustomed to individual screens in their seats, they are more and more dissatisfied if they don’t get them, or have to pay extra to watch what they like, or if their screen doesn’t work.

In this age of ever-present data access and mobile everything, we are used to watching everywhere, customizing our viewing experience, and watching or playing on multiple screens at once. We will bring those same expectations to airline travel and airlines must keep up with our expectations. Designing an engaging and enjoyable in-flight experience that meets traveler expectations is one of the few ways to differentiate in the air travel industry and increase the likelihood of that elusive ‘highly satisfied’ traveler rating.

Anke Adenwala is a Research Director for User Experience at GfK and can be contacted at anke.adenwala@gfk.com.