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Do ‘Unhappy’ American Flyers Even Know Why They’re Unhappy?

The results of a recent travel-satisfaction study are puzzling, to say the least.

“Americans Are Officially the Unhappiest Air Travelers on Earth.” That’s a headline on a travel website, referring to a survey report recently posted by SITA, an airline-owned specialist in information technology in transport. And, yes, the survey found that the “global dissatisfaction index” for American travelers, at 28 percent, was higher than for travelers in Asia (23 percent), Europe (18 percent), and the Middle East (16 percent). This index represents the percentage of respondents “wanting to see a significant improvement” in seven aspects of air travel.

But results for the specific aspects in need of improvement are extremely puzzling. To start, the survey reports that the vast majority (78 percent) of respondents are “generally happy” with their travel experience, and that the top reason for dissatisfaction was “collecting baggage at destination.” Baggage collection topped even “security/border control procedures,” and, surprisingly, “in-flight experience and service” ranked lowest of the seven individual factors studied. Really? When was the last time someone you asked about their flight complained more strongly about baggage collection than about the miserable overcrowding and lousy service in the economy cabin, the security hassles, or the eternal lines at customs and immigration? The only reason I can think of for respondents’ failure to specifically list those other considerations ahead of baggage delivery is that respondents figured those conditions would never improve.

“The only reason I can think of … is that respondents figured those conditions would never improve.”

SITA’s focus on information technology shows throughout the report. It found that a majority of travelers believe that “technology has definitely improved the travel experience,” that 97% of passengers travel with at least one “smart” device, and that a majority like to use their own devices onboard. The findings about areas where passengers want the industry to invest more heavily should be very encouraging to travelers:

  • Better comparability of airline fares. Here, the “new distribution capability” data communication system being pushed by big airlines through their trade association, IATA, will undoubtedly improve fare comparability across all distribution channels.
  • Better real-time flight information. Airlines are continually working on this problem.
  • Inflight wireless connectivity. Onboard Wi-Fi is fast becoming as ubiquitous as it is in hotels, and trendsetting Emirates has just announced it will be “free.” Other lines will follow. 

All in all, increasing connectivity and integration of smart devices will almost surely serve, as SITA predicts, to simplify the travel experience. But “baggage delivery” as more in need of improvement than the cattle-car conditions in economy class? Give me a break!

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By Ed Perkins

A nationally recognized reporter, writer, and consumer advocate, Ed Perkins focuses on how travelers can find the best deals and avoid scams.

He is the author of "Online Travel" (2000) and "Business Travel: When It's Your Money" (2004), the first step-by-step guide specifically written for small business and self-employed professional travelers. He was also the co-author of the annual "Best Travel Deals" series from Consumers Union.

Perkins' advice for business travelers is featured on MyBusinessTravel.com, a website devoted to helping small business and self-employed professional travelers find the best value for their travel dollars.

Perkins was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, one of the country's most influential travel publications, from which he retired in 1998. He has also written for Business Traveller magazine (London).

Perkins' travel expertise has led to frequent television appearances, including ABC's "Good Morning America" and "This Week with David Brinkley," "The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather," CNN, and numerous local TV and radio stations.

Before editing Consumer Reports Travel Letter, Perkins spent 25 years in travel research and consulting with assignments ranging from national tourism development strategies to the design of computer-based tourism models.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, Perkins lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife.

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