Check out this graphic that combines how Southwest and United Airlines do in handling (more specifically, losing) passenger bags (the lines) with how those passengers complain to the Feds about those airlines mishandling their luggage (the bars).
To give credit where it is due, the graph comes from a working paper by MIT researcher Michael D. Wittman (Are low-cost carrier passengers less likely to complain about service quality?) which is also discussed in a BusinessWeek post (Why Discount Airlines Draw Fewer Complaints (Hint: It’s Not Better Service), Feb 6). I find this a pretty interesting piece of eye candy. It seems to suggest that Southwest is the Teflon airline — nothing sticks to it even when their operational performance is as mediocre as other airlines.
Wittman’s work has a couple of interesting facets to it. First, Southwest isn’t alone in having relatively low complain rates. JetBlue and Alaska also have much lower rates than big “legacy” carriers such as United, American, and USAir. (However, it should be noted that it ain’t just about being a traditional network carrier that drives up complaints. Delta has the fourth lowest complaint rate in the data set.) Second, this is not just about bags. It’s about multiple dimensions of performance. As the BusinessWeek article notes, JetBlue runs a lot of flights from delay prone JFK and so has the lowest on-time performance of the groups but it still has a low complaint rate.So how do we explain these differences? There are several possibilities that are discussed in both the original paper and the BusinessWeek article. First, it may be that passengers on discount airlines have lower expectations and so take less offense when things don’t go quite as planned. For example, Southwest and JetBlue don’t charge if you check one bag while United has the temerity to suggest that handling a checked bag is an added service. If Southwest is late getting your bag out, at least the price was right. When United does the same thing, they have failed to deliver the service they sold you.
Another explanation is that the conventional network carriers are handling more business travelers than the likes of JetBlue and Southwest and that road warriors are both more sensitive to service lapses and more capable of complaining. The argument on the latter point is that the typical airline web site doesn’t explicitly provide information on how to whine to the FAA. It takes a certainly level of experience and awareness to know that one can complain.
I’m not sure that any of these explanations really tell the full story. Consider this data from the most recent Department of Transportation report on air travel.
Note that this gives the total number complaints for each airline that were filed last November so there is no adjustment for the total number of passengers flown as in the chart above. Also note that Spirit Airlines — to paraphrase The Onion — is just the worst. It clocks in with more complaints than Southwest or Delta despite being a much smaller airline. (Note that Spirit is not included in the data in the Wittman paper.) Delta certainly flies more business passengers than Spirit and Spirit is likely more dependent on leisure travelers than Southwest. Frankly, no one is setting lower expectations than Spirit. If anything Spirit demonstrates that if your service is sufficiently poor that even infrequent leisure travelers can figure out how to narc on you.
So why does United generate a higher rate of complaints than Southwest? I think it has to do with basic training and empowerment of frontline workers. When your bag doesn’t show up, your immediate recourse is not calling the FAA; it is speaking with an airline employee. If that employee can show a little empathy and try to help, no one will be rushing to call the Feds. Said another way, well designed recovery processes matter and that is true independent of niches the firm targets or how it prices.