Sentiment of the Week: Nostalgia in the Airline Industry

By: Dheepan Ramanan

May 28, 2015

Sentiment Analysis
Social Customer Care
Voice of the Customer

Nostalgia can be a tricky thing. Negative memories can get lost in a halcyon glow which masks harsher realities.  However, in the case of the airline industry, nostalgia-tinged longing for the golden age of wealthy jetsetters drinking fashionable cocktails served by attractive stewardesses makes sense in light of today’s depressing reality:

  • Airlines subscribe to a method of “calculated misery” to encourage customers to pay fees for amenities that used to be standard.
  • Grueling business travel and sprawling international terminals are the new norm.
  • The roomiest seats in economy class are now smaller than even narrowest seats in the 1990s.
  • The average US flight is now at 84% capacity, compared to the 50% or 60% capacity rates during most of the 20th century.
  • Alcohol is only available for purchase on most domestic flights, and in most cases only beer and wine is available.

Clearly, the decline in customer experience in airlines is an objective phenomenon. What can airlines do to meet the new economic realities and improve customer experience?

To understand the airline experience, I conducted a sentiment analysis using the Clarabridge intelligence platform. Clarabridge measures positivity or negativity on an 11 point scale from -5 to +5, 0 being neutral. I aggregated data from online review sites where customers gave ratings from 1-5 as well as written reviews. Overall, In-flight experience is the most common theme by volume and has an above average review score.


Aircraft Maintenance has the highest proportion of detractors (scores 1-3) at nearly 70%. By far the most common theme mentioned within Aircraft Maintenance was seat width, which comprised 80% of the comments in the category.

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Unfortunately for unhappy travelers, Seat Width is unlikely to change. However, we can use sentiment analysis to determine what other themes have the largest impact on average review rating.

As seen below, Customer Service has the largest impact on overall experience. Positive customer service sentiment results in an increase of over a point in review rating, compared to a one point drop when customer comments about service are negative. Customer service scores are highly dependent on high levels of training and employee attitude. Check-In experience has the next highest effect in review rating, with a similar 2 point swing between negative and positive comments. Irregular Operations Handling (IRROPS) has a high negative effect on review rating and a positive impact that is less than average. Finally, In-Flight Experience has above average impact on review rating. Analyzing each of these touchpoints, there is a clear takeaway in each theme that would improve customer experience.


Check-In Experience

Airlines should focus on improving the order and speed of processing check-in, especially with web options that are more efficient. Customers found it especially frustrating when empty business check-in kiosks were not used to process long lines of economy passengers, leading to delayed flights. Order and process are the largest drivers of positive sentiment among check-in comments, while lack of optimization results in highly negative feedback. Many customers stated a preference for web-only check-in lines, which allowed for a smoother check-in experience.  Priority check-in lines were also viewed positively by frequent travelers.

Example Comments:

Check-in in Bombay was good with a dedicated line for Web check in passengers.

Check in was very slow and disorganized between standard economy and web check in.

3 Business Class check-in counters remain open and free, not processing the very long lines of economy passengers that often delay these flights.

Irregular Operations (IRROPS) Handling

IRROPS are situations when unplanned occurrences cause delays to flights, such as weather or mechanical issues. These events always generate negative sentiment, so airlines must clearly communicate with customers to minimize the displeasure.

Although speed of customer resolution has a worse average review rating (1.73), it is overshadowed by Agent Communication which has 180% more comments and nearly the same review rating (1.91). Weather related delays may not be the fault of airlines, but customers get frustrated with the lack of sympathy often shown by airline agents. Only 12% of all customers mentioned agent communication in an IRROPS event positively, the lowest percentage of any IRROPS theme.

Example Comments:

During delays, the staff were very rude and not forthcoming with any information about the delays

Direct lie from the staff of the company calling weather problems as a main reason for delay (as we learn upon arrival at Madrid airport, they had a technical failure issue)

Poor communication, lack of explanations and terrible customer service.

 In-Flight Experience

Although customers no longer expect free meals from airlines, neglecting this customer touchpoint might be a mistake. Customers find the prices for food high, but food mentions tremendously improve overall customer satisfaction if they are paired with mentions of high quality. Positive mentions of food quality and selection raise satisfaction by 1.3 points. This improvement is even higher than customers mentioning an on-time arrival and nearly as high as positive customer service mentions. Alcoholic beverages are also a winner of customer experience, with customers rating airline experience highly whenever mentioning this topic.

Example Comments:

Completely exceeded expectations, really attentive crew, meals were wonderful, free instant noodles and sandwiches were a nice amenity, toilets were fine, planes were fairly modern and entertainment kept us thoroughly entertained.

Very impressed with the service of the cabin crew and the food and refreshments – really surprisingly good.

Food was absolutely excellent beautiful lamb cutlet and beef cheek – best food I have had on an aircraft.

Very generous with the booze – excellent champagne, wines and some fine malt whiskies, all served correctly by the wonderfully attentive FAs: old school British, middle aged ladies and gentlemen, chatty and polite to the point of parody, but the twinkle in their eyes tells you that they know it.

Crew were superb all the way, food was exceptional and the alcohol flowed freely.

Key  Takeaways

The present reality of air travel may leave many passengers longing for the classy (or at least more spacious) past, but airlines have plenty of room to optimize the current airline experience. Improvements to food variety and quality, IRROPS handling, and check-in processes would all tremendously benefit the customer experience. And if the data holds true, who knows, maybe a whiskey cocktail on domestic flights may make a come-back, and not have to live on in nostalgic memory alone.

To see how this type of analysis can help your business, request a demo.

Dheepan Ramanan is a data scientist at Clarabridge. Follow him on Twitter @DheepanRamanan.