• Garrett Meccariello

Is Your Airline Customer Experience Up In The Air?

Updated: May 16, 2019

Written by Garrett Meccariello.


Air travel. Everyone loathes it in one way or another No, this is not the start to a comedy sketch, or I’d have led with a rendition of “what’s the deal with airline peanuts?". From the ever-shrinking seats to the battle for the armrest, air travel has long departed the days of being served prime rib and champagne. Judging by the numerous J.D. Power industry awards presented to America’s largest airlines, one would assume that air travel is all fine and dandy. The reality is, current airline customer experience can only hope to be the best of the rest, or, is there a way that we can do better?

The air travel experience has changed, shouldn’t the way airlines evaluate their customer experience delivery change as well? Net Promoter Scores tell a fraction of the customer experience journey while in the sky, but in reality, the lived experience differs from what is recorded in traditional CSAT surveys leaving airlines unaware of what really occurred in the air.


How can brands truly understand the experience that their passenger’s endure, and identify actionable changes to their service delivery? Going beyond traditional metrics is a good start.

Traditional quantitative questions built upon Likert scales do not provide any nuance between why a passenger decided their trip was a 7 or a 3. Inserting an open-end text response attempts to uncover such differences, but often yield flat results. Combining quantitative scales with qualitative text boxes do not often provide successful recommendations to enhance service delivery or change the onboard customer experience. The research team at Protobrand came across this when preparing for one of our recent webinars.

In the midst of the 2017’s Airline PR snafus we noticed that there was little coming from the traditional CSAT methodologies that had made its way into the cabin to reduce problems such as inter-passenger conflict and the rush for the last boarding group to make it to their seats first.

To tackle this problem we leveraged two of behavioral sciences’ trending research methodologies, Visual Metaphor Elicitation and Response Latency in a 400+ person study of recent air travelers. These methodologies were chosen because they provide a deeper understanding of the emotions elicited during experiential moments.

Response Latency questions evaluate implicit associations to understand how passengers really react to a stimulus before past marketing or experiential moments kick in, clouding their judgment. Response Latency and other implicit association research techniques pair two competing stimuli, words, or general concepts together and asked respondents to make a choice of which is better or more related to a certain subject for example. It is within this forced choice environment that we are able to evaluate the speed and frequency of selection of each stimulus. A faster or more implicit selection denotes a System 1 (fast thinking brain) response- often referred to as the true feeling of the consumer. This technique allowed us to uncover that two airlines, Southwest and Delta, came the closest to delivering the "ideal" airline travel experience.


Simply identifying which airline delivered the best experience was not enough. In order to go deeper, we used a proprietary methodology known as visual metaphor elicitation. This technique leverages the fact that over 80% of human communication is non verbal, and asks respondents to explain their thoughts and feelings by using visual metaphors about a particular subject, in this case their recent air travel experience. Metaphor elicitation exercises provide the ability to evoke a System 1 non-conscious measurement response from survey respondents that ensures a deeper, emotionally connected response. Using this technique provides not only choice text responses, but also a way to quantify the mass text data using AI to provide quantitative numbers to the salient emotional themes that were uncovered through this methodology. Our research identified 6 salient emotional themes that Southwest and Delta passengers referenced when evaluating their recent air travel experience.


Human emotions are deeply tied to memory encoding. By understanding the emotions felt during their recent air travel experiences, respondents allowed us to peer into the past to identify strategic ways to enhance and enlighten their air travel experience. The images above compare the universe of emotional feelings that the respondents spoke to in their visual exercises. Our research was able to sift through the general negative emotions that accompany air travel (feelings of discomfort) and provide the recommendations listed below that airlines can all hearken to in order to enhance their service delivery, and ensure that the emotions tied to travel experiences are positive.


The winner of the Protobrand Best Airline Customer Experience of 2017 award as crowned by Protobrand can be found here for those curious how to follow suit.

If interested in learning more about the study that we conducted, the air travel customer experience case study can also be downloaded here free of charge. Members of our research team are also available to take you and your team through a personal walk through of the insights, recommendations, and key strategic directions that are worth focusing on in order to enhance your customer experience delivery and solidify your brand placement among competitors.

#CustomerExperience #AirTravel

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