Why I’ve Started Filling Out Post-Flight Airline Surveys

I’m sure most of you get inundated with emails requesting feedback from all kinds of companies every day. This is especially common in the travel industry. After almost every hotel stay or flight I’ll get an email asking me to fill out a survey. Up until recently I almost never did this. We’re all busy, and sometimes the surveys are quite long.

The way I view it, if I have a serious compliment or complaint, I’d much rather send a dedicated email about that topic than spend my time contributing towards a statistic. But lately I’ve had a bit of a change of heart in this regard. I’m not going so far as to fill out every survey I get, but I have frequently started filling out the post-flight surveys I get from US airlines. Why?

These surveys matter to airlines… too much

I’ve had my fair share of conversations with executives in the airline industry over the years, including both on the product and loyalty program side. Sometimes they’ll ask for feedback, and after I share my thoughts they’ll act surprised and say “our survey scores in that area are really great.” At that point my jaw usually drops, and I’m not sure what to say. Out of respect for the conversations I’ve had I don’t want to get into too much detail, but suffice to say that you’d be shocked to know some of the areas where airline executives don’t see any flaws in their offerings.

It reminds me a bit of Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” show, which I find to be amusing. He comes into a struggling restaurant, and they don’t understand why they don’t have customers. Gordon says the food is absolute garbage, and almost without exception, the chef or owner responds “everyone loves our food.”

Of course the difference is that US airlines are actually doing well and flights are full, but that’s rarely because of anything great the airlines are doing, but rather just due to the lack of real competition.

Personally I don’t think surveys are a great metric of performance

I think companies often weigh surveys too heavily. There are lots of reasons they aren’t necessarily representative of the popular opinion on a topic:

  • Generally you either have to be really satisfied or really dissatisfied to fill out a survey, since it takes time to do and you’re not being paid for it
  • Often questions are phrased in a way that favors the company, and that doesn’t get at the core of some of the issues
  • Often companies will throw out the most “extreme” responses, both positive and negative, which really eliminates much of the feedback

I’m not saying surveys are a worthless metric, but personally I think they’re often weighed too much.

Why I’ve started filling out surveys

I swear I’m not trying to be spiteful, but I feel like there’s value in letting airlines know when aspects of their experience aren’t great. If they’re going to weigh this feedback so heavily and often tell us that they’re doing well in an area where they’re clearly not, or that they’re making changes due to “customer feedback,” then I guess I’ll have to fill out surveys until their “feedback” changes. 😉

Maybe if they consistently get lower survey scores, they’ll be more likely to change things. That’s not because the CEO will necessarily care, but rather because people running individual departments know their performance evaluation will be based on many of these scores.

For example, I just filled out a survey regarding a recent (paid first class) transcon American Airlines flight operated by an ex-US Airways plane, and I was asked questions about both the onboard experience and the AAdvantage program. You can bet I left low scores for the lack of power ports, the lack of entertainment, the slow wifi, and more.

While I didn’t even think the service was bad, I guess American has higher expectations of their own service than I do:

I wish my answers weren’t the truth, but unfortunately they are. Like I said, I didn’t even consider this to be a flight with bad service! On a small minority of flights am I being offered pre-departure beverages, being thanked for flying American, and addressed by name. Those things don’t necessarily matter to me all that much, but if they’re going to ask, I’ll gladly let them know that they’re failing in those regards.

Bottom line

If you’re not filling out post-flight airline surveys, consider doing so, especially if you’re unhappy. All too often I hear airlines justify decisions based on customer feedback, and say that their “survey scores” in a particular area are good, even when it’s incomprehensible to me. Let the airlines know when you aren’t happy with the product they’re offering. Hopefully worse scores will light a fire under someone’s rear.

To balance that, I also recommend acknowledging great employees. Personally I prefer sending a dedicated email for that, but you can also fill out a survey.

Do you fill out post-flight airline surveys? Under what circumstances? 

Comments

  1. Hi Ben,

    Totally agree with your view on this. I too am not a fan of these surveys, which I don’t know what they do with it in the end. But I now actually look forward to these surveys after my flights especially the extreme ones – good and bad, in order for me to give my opinion. How much it will influence the airline in improving or maintaining the good level of service and product, no one knows.

    Hopefully good comes out from these surveys instead of airlines just using them for “show” that they have done a survey. I know Air France (which I fly quite a lot) comes quite regularly with such post-flight survey and I fill it out as per each experience.

    Cheers!

  2. I’m glad you’re giving honest feedback to airlines. So often companies simply don’t want to hear criticism. I do some mystery shopping and it’s amazing how many companies hire people to check on their service and then try to reject the validity of the report if it isn’t complimentary instead of using it to fix their problem areas. Kudos to you for providing accurate unbiased feedback.

  3. Where do you find these surveys? I was in AA Flagship First the other day, and would LOVE to share my experience with AA. The «service», or should I say lack of service was mind blowing.

  4. My bank (First Republic) sent me a crisp $5 bill in the mail to complete a one page, 5 question survey along with a postage paid envelope.

  5. American has two priorities for its flight attendants in premium cabins: serve predeparture beverages and address customers by name. And they still don’t do it consistently. Here’s the internal communication on the subject:

    https://viewfromthewing.boardingarea.com/2017/11/22/2-things-american-airlines-wants-wants-flight-attendants/

    I’ve started filling these surveys out too. I recently filled one out with American, it was fairly negative about an LUS A319 that was full and I couldn’t even get a Main Cabin Extra seat. They have an A319 scheduled hub-to-hub headed to South Florida on a Thursday afternoon in Winter. They don’t have enough premium seats to sell (whether first or just extra legroom). I got a voicemail from the airline and an email. They completely misunderstood my concern. But they gave me miles. I replied explaining my concern again. They misunderstood, but they gave me a partial refund. I gave up.

  6. I sometimes fill these surveys out, sometimes not. I generally think that I get “paid” to complete surveys at sites like e-rewards where I can convert the credits I receive to airline miles, hotel points and other rewards. Why should I spend my limited time for “free?”

    As for your scores, I see the point you’re making. However, regarding the decent average scores execs say they get, I would imagine you are in the long tail of those with the highest expectations. For example, I really don’t care about power ports and the speed of the Wi-Fi is of limited importance. I understand why these things matter to you but I would think more people are like me: they are nice-to-haves but no big deal either way. As for smiling, using my name, etc…again, nice to have but at the end of the day, I really don’t care so long as they were not actively rude.

  7. My company also puts entirely too much weight in the post-trip surveys. Some of the questions like “How was the cleanliness of the carpet” are things where we are unlikely to score high marks because it is only going to stick out in people’s minds if the carpet was REALLY filthy. When is the last time you got on a plane and remarked “wow, the carpet is sparkling!”

    At least the AA survey you posted has some meaningful, direct questions about service. Maybe they’ll listen.

  8. At the end of the day, nothing motivates the current crop of legacy-3 airline execs except the bottom line. They are boosting current profits at the expense of long-term ones by gutting frequent flier programs for all except the highest spenders (who, ironically, likely have corporate contracts that require loyalty, so the incentive is an economic waste). Having said that, if surveys start to show a great deal of premium-cabin dissatisfaction, I do think this will at least help motivate some change.

    I remember getting a call from AA when they must have noticed my travel dropping from exp to virtually nothing. I explained that AA had a mediocre operation, with mediocre service so without a good ff program, there was nothing to keep me there. Of course, nothing has changed.

  9. @ Ben in the beginning I did take time in answering those surveys..nowadays if I have some serious beefs with the service, seat or cabin personnel, I tend to write directly or even wish a telefone conversation with one from the PR or service departements. In such flights I will write down extensively what happened and what help or solution I got on board firstly either with a FA or Purser or Ground Staff. If there is no proper solution found on that moment, then the usual written or oral communication with the responsible airline departement.

  10. The problem with most of these surveys is that they are sent much too long after the flight in question. I often get a survey asking for details of a specific flight that I took a month before, or longer. If you fly at all frequently, how are you expected to remember?

  11. Completely agree with being honest, especially when the service is garbage. But what really grinds my gears is that the algorithms that “read” surveys like these are likely to dispense with your survey response because they’ve likely been told to disregard all surveys that contain all “Yes” or all “No” responses. Those surveys are seen as not having been truthful either out of laziness or out of spite. So I always provide at least one opposing response just in case, even if it’s not true. That’s one of my main problems with binary-response surveys; I’m not really giving my honest opinion in an effort to ensure the survey is calculated. And now I’m just reinforcing bad behavior. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.

  12. I don’t travel as much as you do, so I typically will fill these out. I agree that American businesses in general rely too much on these things. Ever buy a car? The dealership will tell you straight out that the manufacturer will be sending a survey. And if you can’t give them the top score on every single item (usually it’s 5) they want you to contact them to straighten out whatever you’re not satisfied with. Therefore their surveys are totally meaningless. I always fill them out truthfully because I hate it when some one tells me what to do.

  13. The survey takers will still filter out the majority of negative comments.

    That’s why CEOs of small and large corporations as well as heads of state are in a constant “cordon sanitaire”…

  14. Ben, thank you for this post. I work in an industry that provides a platform to specifically help companies (including many of the largest airlines and hotels) measure the experience of their customers, and I’d love to share some of my thoughts.

    You’re absolutely right that there is often a gap between what executives perceive of the customer experience and what customers are actually experiencing. Most companies are painfully aware of this, and there has been a trend to correct that. That said, it is a complex problem to address, especially for larger organizations.

    Surveys can absolutely be a great metric of performance, but only if well executed. Too often, companies send out surveys that are too long and/or poorly designed, which leads to poor data quality. We have folks in my company that literally have PhDs in Survey Research and Methodology. I can attest to the fact that a majority of surveys companies currently send out are not well designed. Beyond just sending out surveys and collecting responses, a company needs to have the ability to act on the insights that they collect.

    I disagree that companies often ‘throw out the most “extreme” responses, both positive and negative.’ While some may do that, I can assure you that most companies actually focus on the extreme data points in an effort to really understand what’s going on (at least most of the companies I work with).

    All that said, definitely continue to fill out surveys when convenient, especially if you actually have some feedback. In addition, give feedback about the survey itself too, like if it’s too long. The companies that will continue to do well are the ones who genuinely try to understand their customers.

  15. To build off of what Nick said, I worked as a management consultant for years and have done work at a few of the major airlines in this country and beyond and I can confirm that throwing out “extreme” surveys does not really happen. What does happen is that these surveys are looked at in HUGE quantities to get a better idea of the true level of service (the idea being that the more data you have the more likely the answers will be to converge to the true mean). Furthermore, these things really are helpful for companies to improve their service. Yes they are business that are first and foremost concerned with making money (don’t get why so many people here and beyond look at that as a bad thing), but they generally do care about customers as they realize that customer loyalty is a huge part of their 80/20 business model (80% revenue from about 20% of their customers). The only way for an executive at these companies that services hundreds of millions of people per year is to get data. The best way to get data from customers is these surveys. It really does make a difference to fill these out and they actually are looked at closer than most people think. Keep it up Ben, I know my former clients can use it!

  16. @Nick and @John:

    Since my experience seems to differ from yours in the whole “extreme responses are thrown out” arena, I’m curious to know how your guys’ agencies factored in those extreme responses, especially if they came in droves. The agencies I’ve worked with/for – generally consulting agencies for IT process improvement – specifically mentioned that they’d eliminate “outliers” for the reasons I mentioned, and recommended against yes/no and good/bad binary survey questions since they cultivate poor response metrics unless a freeform text area accompanied the question…and even then they didn’t think it was great.

    Clearly there’s an art to the length of the survey, number of possible choices, verbiage for the choices, etc., but I have a hard time believing the very short, yes/no survey Ben received, especially from an airline during a time when airlines aren’t viewed too favorably, will be taken seriously with an all “No” response. I can only imagine the sheer volume of surveys coming back the same way because people simply don’t like airlines these days. I’d love to hear your thoughts since I’m a pretty consistent survey filler-outer.

  17. As a Platinum Medallion with Delta I receive a survey link after every flight. As someone who is gluten free I take advantage of EVERY survey to give Delta positive reinforcement for the GF snacks they had on board (they keep getting more options including a pretty solid snack mix for the past few months) or if it’s one of those rare flights where all they have are Biscoff’s or regular pretzels I air my grievance.

  18. They should just add the survey to inflight AVOD systems. Passengers can rate as they go – now that would shake up the service levels. Even public bathrooms and some immigration officers now have the “choose smiley face option” button.

  19. Years ago when US Airways was at a particularly low point financially they began showing “classic” films on their international flights. These were black and white films that were probably free. I filled out a survey commenting that the cheap films made me think I was on the Titanic. On my next international flight the black and whites were gone. Survey power? When Doug Parker brings the black and whites to AA, I’m done.

  20. I fill these out but I’m not sure what good they do. Back in the dark ages before the internet my Mother worked for a major airline as the Director of Group Sales. She said that one letter (complaint or compliment) sent to the airline was considered the equivalent of a thousand such letters and was taken seriously. Basically they knew where the warts were and took action to clean them up. Now it seems with social media, blogs, surveys, etc., nothing is ever taken seriously unless a dog dies or a passenger is dragged off a plane.

  21. I get them from hotels ( maybe 1/5 stays) and always reply but VERY RARELY from airlines; in fact, zero from airlines in the past year, IIRC ( that would be for more than 100 flights, in every class, every alliance, all continents except South America). How do they choose the recipients?

  22. Not sure I remember ever getting a survey request from AA. I have gotten them from Hilton and complained last year when the hotel wifi was down. They credited me 10K points for the issue.

  23. I usually do them. At least with Delta they say at the beginning something along the lines of “this is not a forum for complaints. If you wish to file a specific complaint please go to blah blah blah.” I do often send them emails when I get great service. It happens frequently on board, but I really try to send compliments for the people who work in the lounges. Without exception those employees *hustle*and*smile.* They collect empty glasses/plates quickly and almost always ask if they can bring you more of whatever it was. Their offerings are just what they are, but the employees are truly good.

  24. I can tell you that, at least for hotels, we take guest surveys very seriously. Individual hotels are graded on them. And certain departments have goals built around them. In my30 years in the industry. I’ve never know “extreme” responses high or low to be tossed.

  25. I can say that companies pay attention to this. I worked at a CPG company and most of the time everything seemed to be perfect because there were no quality control complains from customers. When they received one it helped a lot to fix possible issues in the future.
    At one time one product changed and some customers started to complain, there was nothing bad, just a variation of product.

  26. @AdamR

    It depends a lot on your sample size re: outliers. If we were working with only a few hundred or so throwing out outliers would be a valid strategy, but when you are working with tens of thousands of data points (as we often were with these fortune 100+ companies) a few outliers is not going to do much to influence the trends that you are looking to see. Now your point about the survey format is not incorrect, but it comes down to what you feel is going to get more responses. Using a 1-5 scale is shown to cause more fatigue for the user than the Y/N option when scaled for survey length so I think the Airline’s plan here is to get more responses out of the quicker format.

  27. A few years ago we had such a bad experience in British Airways that I decided to fill the survey questionnaire. Our favourite airline was going downhill too fast.

    They had so many questions on it that eventually I gave up .. and decided to prefer other airlines.

  28. Related topic: dealership surveys (at least the ones from Volkswagen). I get them every time I take the Passat in for service, and apparently to Volkswagen these things REALLY matter. In fact, I gave negative marks on the survey when I bought the car 6 years ago (took 5 hours at the dealership to do the paperwork, and other issues) and the salesperson called to find out what happened. Apparently my negative marks impacted his ability to get a bonus for that quarter from Volkswagen!

    Same thing with service. In fact I just filled one out about a week for some brake work I had done. Gave the dealership all 10’s except for the “value” question, because I paid about $600 in labor for I’d say a 2 hour job (change brake pads and rotors). That’s egregious to me, but I put in my comments that that’s applicable to any dealership not just this Volkswagen one. I get an email from Volkswagen a few days later to ask if the dealership provided some sort of follow-up! And the service manager just called me today to find out what happened!

    So yeah, I’m going to keep filling out dealership surveys for sure. And I guess I’ll fill out airline ones too.

  29. @John:

    Thanks for the reply! That’s good info to have; I think the use and environment of the surveys had more impact than I realized. I guess I need to be brutally honest from now on.

  30. I always fill them out.
    Even with the censoring, some criticism leaks through and that may be enough to get their attention.

  31. I just filled out a flight survey for Southwest the other day, couldn’t help but thinking they were steering answers to skew positive answers. The phrasing of the questions seemed to always result in a positive answer. It was hard to express where I was looking for improvement – why the plane was 40 mins late and no explanation given – without it being washed over with 12 other questions on whether people smiled at me when I interacted with them.

  32. this is not about flights, but i wanted to chime in since it is about travel: hertz usually sends out a survey after rentals. i used to delete it, but recently an employee told me they get points based on feedback — apparently the survey is very important to them.

  33. In my experience, these surveys are biased anyways. I could list a number of airlines which only send out survey forms if nothing too obvious went wrong. If they are aware of issues (e.g. substantial delays, downgrades, lounge closures etc.), they don’t send out any forms …

    My interpretation of this is that some executives seem to get their bonuses calculated based on survey results – and obviously would not want to jeopardize them with troubled flights.

  34. I just got off an AA flight on an ex U.S. Airways a321 and I was so mad when I saw their was no power ports and entertainment! Where do I find the survey, I need some miles compensation for that 😉

  35. Great post – thank you for reminding everyone of the importance in providing feedback! Most companies / industries take their Customer Experience very seriously and welcome both positive and negative commentary as it details opportunities for both improvement and recognition.

    I’m certain that Delta places importance on the experience their teams are providing as I receive a post-flight survey from them about a day after each completed segment which allows me to point out issues with a specific flight, crew, aircraft, etc.

    Discliamer: I’m employed in the CX space with a platform technology provider.

  36. @ Ben – I agree with your comments about not taking the time to complete the surveys, but here’s what I think you need to consider – who evaluates the survey. Marriott/Ritz Carlton, often times the hotels evaluate the feedback directly and will reply and if you provide them with more detail you can often times obtain money back for areas that you were not satisfied with, bonus points, etc. Others that review the survey centrally, it depends on the detail of your written comments and your status as to if you will get a reply or not. While I agree, it is not a good way to evaluate feedback, it seems that the firms are replying to an increasing number of them.

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