Following United Airlines’ partnership in the airport biometrics screening tech company, J.D. Power travel analyst Michael Taylor looks into the benefits and hurdles in various ways airlines attempt to achieve higher flier satisfaction rates.

Considering that fliers’ positive or negative views of their airline experience start the minute they get in the security line, United Airlines’ decision to partner with CLEAR to get its MileagePlus rewards members to the departure gate more quickly could make sense given that the smallest comfort can make a difference.

Plus, since many travelers who have paid the $85 fee for TSA Precheck (or the $100 additional fee for Global Entry international returning flights) might other balk at CLEAR’s $179 annual membership, United’s ability to offer the screening service at a discount to its frequent fliers could make a difference in winning bookings and favor from impatient customers.

CLEAR’s screening is currently available at 26 U.S. airports out of over 60 locations nationwide. The company bills itself as the “secure identity” company that uses biometrics vet customers through a checkpoint faster at airports and stadium venues.

United is offering free CLEAR membership for Global Services and Premier 1K members. In addition, Premier Platinum, Gold and Silver members as well as most United credit card members receive a discounted membership rate of $109 while all other MileagePlus members are eligible for a discounted offer of $119 per year, United said in a release.    

To get a sense of the value United sees in CLEAR, as the partnership also includes a strategic investment from the airline in the tech company, is likely to impact customer satisfaction, we checked in with Michael Taylor, Practice Lead, Travel, for J.D. Power.

Among Taylor’s takes:

CLEAR Passengers Less Stressed, More Satisfied with Airport Experience: J. D. Power data shows that passengers using CLEAR tend to be more satisfied with their airport experience.  Because of the time savings and the reduction of passenger’s stress, passengers also tend to spend twice as much on airport food, beverage and retail compared to passengers NOT using any biometric service.  That is obviously welcome news for airports, many of which are currently stretched beyond capacity.

TSA is Still a Big Hurdle: While CLEAR provides a valuable service at the airport, it is only being used for a small portion of the security process.  Their concierge service, guiding members through the identification process and escorting them to the head of the TSA line, is an excellent start at the airport.  I’m a member of CLEAR and find it very convenient.  However, as soon as a CLEAR passenger is handed off to the TSA, that passenger is subject to the capacity constraints we see at TSA in almost every airport.  TSA capacity is largely determined by the space, or the lack thereof, in most North American airports.

Travelers Perfectly Comfortable with Biometrics Screening: Data gathered by J. D. Power clearly indicates that the flying public finds biometrics useful and beneficial.  If biometrics can significantly add to the throughput capacity of the TSA process, that will go a long way to passenger satisfaction.  If passengers experience delays at TSA, they have less time to enjoy newly renovated terminals and have less time to buy food or beverage, less time to shop at all the new stores that airports are now providing.

United Airlines has partnered with CLEAR to give the carrier's MileagePlus members a discount for expedited airport screening.

We also spoke with Taylor about the broader issues affecting customer satisfaction with airline travel these days, considering the often dark view of complaints big and small that pervade social media on a daily basis.

Based on J.D. Power’s survey of 5,966 passengers between March 2018 and March 2019, the consumer analyst consultancy found that “overall satisfaction with airlines to its highest point in history, up 11 points (on a 1,000-point scale).” 

“Airlines continue to deliver on the operational side of air travel,” Taylor said. So, despite the constant cavils on Twitter and elsewhere, the flying public is steadily getting more satisfied with airlines’ service it seems.

“New technology investments have dramatically improved the reservation and check-in process,” Taylor added. “Fleets are newer and travelers generally feel that they are getting great value for their money. These improvements have been most profound in the traditional carrier segment, where customer satisfaction has climbed considerably.”

Kambr Media: How do you view the appeal of CLEAR to travelers? And how comfortable are consumers with the price and the use of biometrics? Is TSA likely to remain a hurdle to CLEAR’s growth?

Anything that can reduce the stress and the time it takes to get through TSA Security at the airport is going to be viewed as a good thing.  I am a member of CLEAR myself and I find it is helpful, it only shortens the identification and verification part of the security process… and the service level with CLEAR is very high, it’s basically a concierge service that uses fingerprint ID technology.  The issue we see in the J. D. Power data is that although the ID part of the process is speeded up, the CLEAR passenger still needs to go through the rest of the security process and there just isn’t enough physical space at most airports to really speed of the process… there are so many flyers today.

What’s your sense of the overall state of airline customer satisfaction? Do you think this year will be a peak – or is there still room for higher satisfaction rates?

Our airline satisfaction index is at an all-time high.  Operationally, the airlines are operating at or near their best scores as far as things like “denied boarding” which is at an all-time low. Instances like denied boarding are practically non-existent these days – it's less than 1 percent. Lost baggage is also at an all-time low – it’s also around 1 percent or less.

On-time performance for most of the major airlines is very good, although American Airlines is uncharacteristically having a bad quarter in terms of on-time performance. Airlines do a great job scheduling and getting aircraft ready to go in the air.

 On the flip side of those things, load factor, which is something that's great for the airline business but not so great for the passenger, is at a near all-time high. That is the percentage of seats that are filled on every flight.  The load factor was higher 2 years ago by 1 percent or so. But load factor is in the 80s, and even sometimes the low 90s, for some of the routes.  That means the middle seat is almost always occupied by someone.

Airlines are also introducing a lot of things making the experience a lot better. Wifi and in-flight entertainment systems are getting better. But there's still a long way to go. JetBlue has set the standard for in-flight entertainment. Granted, the technology they use isn't really that much different. But the way they market it, the fact that it's so easy to use, that's the standard at the moment according to our data. But Alaska Airlines is doing a great job and has been advertising they have more movie titles in-flight than any other airlines – roughly 500 features throughout.

In terms of the cabin experience, there's been some innovation on the seating, mostly having to do with a little more pitch or leg room. It’s something that goes in and out of “style”… airlines will try to sneak in a few more seats by reducing the pitch, but then satisfaction starts to waver and they back off it.  With load factors so high, it’s a revenue opportunity to squeeze in seats on a particular aircraft and you can understand why airlines do it.  Delta's Comfort-plus is a case in point where they are “selling” increased leg room.

Is it the stronger financial position or the intensifying nature of the competition among airlines that are driving these continued improvements in customer satisfaction?

Yes, there are a lot of little things going on in marketplace, mostly driven by the fact that the airlines have been making a good profit for the last eight years. The entire industry is nestled between $30- to $40 billion in profit per year. That profit allows them to do a lot of things. They can innovate in service, invest in new aircraft, invest in new airport terminals, new lounges and refurbish aircraft at a faster rate.

What areas do you expect to see the most improvement next year? What areas are unlikely to see much change (or even decline?)

The in-flight entertainment and connectivity. Both of which still aren't as optimized as it possibly can be.  Passenger expectations for connectivity and entertainment seem to be racing ahead of what the industry can practically provide. Based on the data that we see, in-flight services are the lowest-rated part of the experience, including paying for the ticket. I'm not talking about making a reservation, I'm talking about actually paying money for the ticket is rated higher than the in-flight services.

The reservation process, the check-in process, and the cabin crew are the biggest peaks of satisfaction within the experience. The aircraft itself is a little bit below the cabin crew, and paying the actual fare is rated lower than those. But even lower than that is the satisfaction with in-flight services, which includes wifi, food and beverage.

Next year we're going to split in-flight food and beverage from in-flight entertainment as far as the factors and attributes we ask about.  That will give our customers a clearer read on what’s happening in-flight.

Also, we are changing our award categories to “long flights” versus “short flights.”  Service levels, type of aircraft and the perception of seating change with the length of flights and we’ll be focusing on those aspects of the airline experience starting next year.

Where are the biggest improvements being made?

When we look at the data, there are two things our people expect to have in-flight, which is working wifi and in-flight power, or in-seat power.

And the airlines are making great strides. United claims they have about 700 plus aircraft with high-speed wifi. Now, “high-speed” is a relative term on an aircraft.

What's going to have to happen for people to be completely satisfied is to be able to get on the aircraft and not do a thing to be connected and start streaming their music, their movies, and other connected information immediately and effectively.

Our data shows that satisfaction on the largest airlines is up. Complaints, officially, are down. We collect things that went wrong in consumers’ flight. Passengers will say “something wasn’t right” on only about 8 percent of flights on average, but people love to fixate on that 8 percent! The most common complaint is that the seat was uncomfortable.

That's because of the length of flight. Once you go past 800 miles or so, your perception of the aircraft and the seat you're sitting in changes. So airlines’ complaints have been pretty steady. I don't think I've seen any airline really drop or go up.

What tends to influence consumers’ airline complaints?

A traveler might have had eight perfect flights over the course of a year, but the in-between flight is the one they like to complain about.  Our numbers show that we're at an all-time high as satisfaction goes.

Airlines and airports have become victims of their own success. So many people are flying today, airports and aircraft are full.  Orlando International Airport and Las Vegas International, as well as other airports across a lot of states, are closing parking lots because they're completely full. There are just so many people going to the airport. And load factor is up significantly from where it was 10 years ago. So that middle seat is going to occupied more often than not.

Have Boeing’s struggles over the grounding of the 737 MAX impacted airline customer satisfaction levels at all?

We didn't pick up much about the737 MAX problem in our studies.

Generally, 93 percent of people do have no idea what kind of aircraft they're getting on to…What I tell our airline clients is that “passengers don't know the type or size of aircraft they're getting onto until they step onto the plane and look right.”

Alaska Airlines has had an incredible streak in grabbing the top spot 12 times in a row. How have they scored so consistently strong?

Alaska has a great attitude to begin with.  They have strong people skills and management is focused on the passenger experience.  They also use the J.D. Power data very effectively.  They assign J.D. Power variables and scores to individuals in their organization and they make those individuals responsible for those numbers going up. And so that's one of the reasons why they're very attuned to the J.D. Power metric.

You note that LCCs typically had high satisfaction rates, but the lines are blurring as major carriers’ performance drove satisfaction this year. What’s the further outlook for LCCs and customer satisfaction? Is the novelty wearing off? Has it become easier for legacy airlines to out-compete their LCC rivals?

The legacy airlines are catching up to LCCs is what it comes down to creating a satisfying experience. The biggest factor of the J.D. Power study that has the most impact on satisfaction is the cost of the fare and the fees.

 Southwest tied for number one in the Low Cost category, tying with JetBlue for the top ranking in the entire study. Southwest has tremendous cost and fees satisfaction, people like the fact that “bags fly free” on Southwest and there is no change fee when plans change.

Those two things – no bag fee and no change fees -- gives a halo that they are being fair as far as pricing goes. Now if you want to change your ticket at most other airlines after you've booked it, it will cost you about $200.

Southwest will just charge you the difference in the fare itself, not a random $200 on top of that.

JetBlue had led in the category for 11 years in a row, until they issued a bag fee. But now JetBlue is back to being tied with Southwest for overall satisfaction. JetBlue also has great in-flight entertainment. If you have great in-flight entertainment, people aren't fixated on how slowly the beverage cart goes up and down the aisle If they’re engrossed in watching an episode of Game of Thrones or John Wick 2, the time goes by much easier

How aggressively have airlines been making tech investments in booking, reservation management, and check-in experiences lately? Have these investments been a long time coming in terms of the pay-off in satisfaction? Will these areas continue to attract high investment from airlines, or are other tech investments emerging?

Airlines always ask us “How can we get better?”

You need great in-flight entertainment and connectivity that happens automatically to really set the pace in the in-flight experience. You have to have in-seat power because people are on a four-hour flight and their phones are going to be dead before they get off the aircraft. That is being improved.

Right now, United Airlines is making some big improvements and they're trying to make it so that everybody can connect online for free.

There are some physical limitations for in-flight streaming or connectivity.  Some aircraft just don’t have the physical space to use some wifi systems. Most airlines, with the exception of maybe Alaska and JetBlue, are operating with about three different generations of wifi.  

From aircraft to aircraft, within each brand, you can have a very different experience, because it's just so dang expensive to put these systems in the aircraft.

When I asked how long it take to put in the wifi, I was told, “about six working days.”

The aircraft comes out of service, doesn't make any money for them yet they're still paying the bank for the lease payment on that aircraft. It's making no money for them while they put the new wifi system in. So they put it back in service and one year later, that wifi system they just put in and spent a lot of money on, becomes the equivalent to the iPhone 4. It's like, that particular wifi system was a great idea for 20 minutes.

Food and beverage is another area where airlines can get better. It is logistically difficult to provide food services to aircraft moving around the country. And lately I've been telling people if you remember 20 years ago, airline food was like a TV dinner.  You peeled of aluminum foil and steam escaped, if you remember.  That kind of presentation went out of style years ago.

As far as food and beverage, especially for the food and beverage you’re trying to sell in-flight, it has to exceed consumers’ expectations. It can't be just something you throw out there and hope that people will be grateful to get something.