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

“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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