Canada’s two biggest airlines scored below average for customer satisfaction among major North American carriers, according to a new survey, part of a trend of growing passenger frustration across the industry.

Conducted by J.D. Power, the poll found Air Canada and WestJet fell below the average customer satisfaction figure of 782 on a 1,000-point scale for economy class service. WestJet notched 777 to edge out Air Canada, which scored 765.

Pricier fares, crowded planes and fewer flight options are behind the frustration — but demand remains strong nonetheless — said Michael Taylor, managing director of travel, hospitality and retail at the Michigan-based consumer analytics company.

As a result, carriers yielded higher revenues this year after a prolonged industry slump prompted by the pandemic. Taylor said many are running at “peak efficiency,” though higher labour and fuel costs compared with 2019 have hampered profit margins, and capacity has not yet reached pre-pandemic levels.

A global pilot shortage has fostered problems in North America, partly explaining why fewer planes ply the skies compared with four years ago.

Some airlines have ditched smaller planes, trying to pack in as many passengers as possible per flight as they slim down their schedules.

“They’re more full — they have a higher load factor — and that usually decreases satisfaction,” Taylor said.

Meanwhile, the surge in leisure travel after two years under border restrictions and COVID-19 health concerns has pushed prices north.

“Because of that high demand, ticket prices are significantly higher, and they’ve been going higher for the past two, two-and-a-half years or so. For the vast majority of travellers, that’s the key factor in satisfaction,” he said.

That discontent is quantifiable in ways other than surveys. The complaints backlog at the Canadian Transportation Agency stood at about 45,000 as of late April, more than triple the tally from a year earlier and requiring at least 18 months on average per case. Many cases revolve around compensation claims after flight delays or cancellations.

The drawn-out uproar prompted the federal government to table an overhaul to Canada’s passenger rights charter last month in an effort to tighten compensation loopholes and toughen penalties.

While a spate of upstart airlines has made domestic air travel cheaper than ever overall in Canada — particularly in the busiest corridors — passengers face higher prices and scarcer trip options in many regions and on international routes, according to figures from aviation data firm Cirium.

“You want to fly to, say, Winnipeg, it might be a little more expensive, because it’s not the most popular destination versus, say, getting to Toronto,” Taylor said.

-By Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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