University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Soaring Expectations: Trying to Keep Airline Passengers Happy 

Passangers on an airplane
December 13, 2022  |  By Nabiha Khetani, Adriana Rossiter Hofer, and Nicolò Masorgo 

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I remember my first time stepping into an airplane as a kid and being mesmerized by the entire process: The rush of cold air hitting me, the cordial flight attendants, and the glowing city outside the window.   
That was nearly 15 years ago, and now the airline industry is struggling to keep afloat. After the pandemic, people are returning to their regular routines, and the demand for air travel is steadily rising. However, airlines cannot meet these demands, and the rates of flight cancellations are increasing daily. Major airlines such as JetBlue, American Airlines, and Delta recently canceled almost 10% of their weekend flights.   
Service failures are a big problem for airlines as they can result in disloyal customers and negative word-of-mouth publicity. As air travel revives, the industry should critically consider how to keep their passengers content and be willing to choose them again. In “Expectations vs Experience: Managing the Adverse Effects of Service Failures on Customer Satisfaction in the Airline Industry,” University of Arkansas’ Associate Professor Adriana Rossiter Hofer, PhD Candidate Nicolò Masorgo, Lehigh University Assistant Professor Saif Mir, investigate how different airlines’ service failures impact customer satisfaction. In addition, they look at how two traditional airline expenditures—advertising and flight personnel salaries— shape the relationship between service failures and customer satisfaction. 
Expectation vs. Experience: How Passengers Really Judge Service Failures  

The research is based on 15,979 passengers’ online ratings, as well as financial and operations airline data from the Department of Transportation. It primarily draws from the Expectancy Disconfirmation Theory (EDT) that is widely used in the service sector to explain customer satisfaction. The difference between expectations and experience is called disconfirmation and can either be positive (experience exceeding expectations) or negative (experience does not meet expectations). EDT predicts that a positive disconfirmation leads to happy customers, while a negative disconfirmation hinders customer satisfaction. 
Whether people are flying for business or for pleasure, passengers have a few basic expectations, which are set before they even step on the plane: timely arrivals, correct baggage handling, and safely reaching the destination.  According to EDT, any service failure, like not being able to board a flight or getting delayed, will create a negative disconfirmation because it is highly contrary to expectations. Indeed, passengers usually expect to save time by selecting air travel. Many people will prefer the higher cost of airplane tickets to spending 10 hours in a car. Therefore, getting bumped from a flight significantly shape the passenger’s experience in a negative way.  
Upon the analysis of the online ratings, the researchers found that the dissatisfaction for arrival delays and getting bumped was higher than for mishandled baggage. They argue that this result is probably because passengers will still arrive at their destination regardless of whether their bags are there or not. Moreover, bags should be recovered that same day or quickly thereafter. Airlines also will provide a type of compensation for the inconvenience.  
The Risky Effects of Advertising   

Marketing and advertising are integral components of a business strategy. The purpose of marketing and advertising is to enhance brand image and attract new customers. In 2021, US airlines spent a combined $760.6 million in advertising, indicating its importance as a tactic.  
To combat negative experiences that result from service failures, airlines look for other ways to influence customer satisfaction, including investing in advertising. However, advertising can have negative effects when expectations are not met by the experience. For instance, JetBlue Airways advertised their superior service in 2019, but were ranked eighth against all US airlines for one-time arrivals, fifth for mishandled baggage, and fourth for bumping passengers. Advertising influences customers’ expectations of service quality, so an increase in advertising should be coupled with a better service experience. The researchers suggest the more airlines spend on advertising, the harder they must work to meet those raised expectations.  
Interestingly, the analysis of the passenger reviews showed that increased expectations from advertising amplified the negative effect of getting bumped from a flight on customers’ satisfaction ratings, but not for arrival delays and mishandled baggage. Blame attribution is a possible explanation for this. Customers won’t necessarily hold the airline responsible for circumstances out of its control, such as delays due to bad weather. And while mishandled baggage is a direct responsibility of the airline, mishandled baggage may occur due to short connections and can be resolved in a short period of time, with the baggage arriving at a later flight or the next day.   
Crucial Time in the Air  

Another major expenditure airlines must account for are flight personnel salaries. Inflight crew members include flight attendants, pilots, co-pilots, and others. Good pay helps attract, motivate, and retain a quality workforce. The higher the pay, the more likely employees will put more effort into their work. On top of that, employers that provide additional work benefits and career opportunities will have satisfied employees who, in turn, provide superior customer service as a way of reciprocating their gratitude to the employer.  
Therefore, a motivated workforce is more likely to put their best foot forward when interacting with customers. Inflight experience is an important factor in passenger satisfaction and consumers who interact with courteous staff will more likely find their experience on par with their expectations. A positive in-flight experience will more than likely mitigate the negative impact of operational service failures on passengers' overall evaluation and satisfaction with the service.   
The researchers found that a better experience with the service helped alleviate the negative effects of service failures on passenger satisfaction ratings, but only for customers who were bumped from their flight. They argued that timing plays a role, as customers frequently recall the most recent interaction. When a caring in-flight staff member empathizes with a passenger who had his/her boarding denied earlier, the customer perceives it as an immediate response to a negative experience. Positive interactions with the flight crew have an important role in alleviating a passenger’s negative experience.   
If employers and businesses want to maintain a satisfied and loyal customer base, they should consider the benefits of increasing workers’ pay and be cautious of the way they market their service through advertising. The study does not necessarily advocate for spending more money, but it does pose general managerial implications for service providers. Whether or not they invest in salaries and advertising, employers must carefully choose expenditures that will increase productivity while maintaining their goal of positively impacting customer satisfaction.

Post Researcher/Author:

Adriana Rossiter HoferAdriana Rossiter Hofer is Associate Professor of Supply Chain Management and the Director of the Global Engagement Office at the Sam M. Walton College of Business, University of Arkansas. Her research on international supply chain management, supply chain relationships, and logistics outsourcing has appeared in several leading journals, such as Journal of Business Logistics, Journal of Operations Managementand Transportation Journal


Nicolò Masorgo is a Ph.D. candidate in the J.B. Hunt Transport Department of Supply Chain Management in the Walton College at the University of Arkansas. Nicolò's primary research area is service operations in retail supply chains with a focus on last mile delivery. Specifically, his research uses large datasets to look at how retail supply chains can improve delivery operational performance to improve customers’ outcomes. His research has been published in Transportation Journal and International Journal of Physical Distribution and Logistics Management. Prior to academia, he worked for DHL as assistant manager in inbound/outbound logistics, and for an online retailer.

Nabiha KhetaniNabiha Khetani is a Senior at the University of Arkansas studying Political Science and Journalism. She serves as a volunteer for the Washington County Teen Court program, is an active member of the Pre-Law Society, and part of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. She has always enjoyed writing, and her post-graduate plans include attending law school to one day become a practicing attorney.