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Why have some airlines fared better in the pandemic than others?

Covid-19 has often been described as a great leveller, but when it comes to air travel that simply isn’t true. While all airlines have undeniably struggled during the pandemic, there have been huge discrepancies in how different companies handled the impact of the virus and what effect that had for customers.


American Airlines and United, for example, started proceedings to lay off more than 32,000 members of staff between them and threatened thousands more job cuts before Congress intervened. Airlines like Delta and Southwest, meanwhile, didn’t involuntarily furlough a single employee.


There was also a huge difference in customers’ experience of different airlines in 2020, with United Airlines receiving more complaints about refunds, fares and reservation issues than Delta, American Airlines and Southwest combined.


This customer experience data arguably sheds a light on how the various airlines fared during the pandemic, revealing that those which reacted quickly and with greater caution to the virus unsurprisingly performed better – and delivered a better service – than those which moved slowly.


American Airlines, for instance, bumped the highest number of passengers from its flights out of any major US airline in 2020. It also had fewer on-time arrivals than most of its competitors and mishandled the highest proportion of luggage – with seven out of every thousand items going missing.


In part these errors were due to AA’s hectic flight schedule, which remained busy despite the pandemic and resultant drop in passenger numbers. However, the airline says it was also due to the layoffs it made throughout the year, causing remaining employees to have to fill in at different stations. AA’s failure to negotiate with unions and keep hold of their staff then inevitably led to a poorer experience for customers.


Southwest Airlines also attempted to maintain a busy flight schedule during the early part of the pandemic and suffered heavily for it, with 73,000 flights cancelled between March 17 and May 2. Southwest’s Chief Operating Officer Mike Van De Ven said the airline initially refrained from slimming down its schedule as passenger numbers fell, choosing instead to cancel flights last-minute if passengers could easily be moved to another service. This inevitably caused uproar and the airline eventually scaled down its operations on May 3.


Another factor which seemed to determine the success of airlines in 2020 was track record. According to the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Middle Seat’ scorecard of customer satisfaction, airlines which had proved reliable in the years before the pandemic remained steady, while those which performed poorly racked up the complaints, and the bills.


Thus Southwest Airlines, Delta and Alaska – which made up the top three in the all the past three Middle Seat rankings – retained their pole positions, while United and American Airlines fell further towards the bottom.



The overall performances of the largest U.S. airlines on the Middle Seat scorecard, from 2018 to 2020.

Of all the major airlines, Delta had the best on-time arrival rate in 2020 and only bumped five passengers in the entire year. This latter feat was in part due to the generous incentives which Delta offered their customers to voluntarily change their flights rather than being unceremoniously booted.


By stark contrast United, which has long ranked poorly in terms of customer satisfaction, was inundated with complaints this year about refunds and fare changes. In particular the airline now admits it was a mistake to pocket the residual value when customers used vouchers for cancelled flights to book new flights that were cheaper. Spokesperson Charles Hobart says United has since “learned a lesson from that experience”.


These experiences again point to an overarching theme in the airlines’ varying success during the pandemic. Where United sought to cut costs by furloughing or otherwise dismissing staff, Delta remained characteristically generous in keeping employees on the books as long as possible. This magnanimity is now likely to pay dividends, with Delta CEO Ed Bastian predicting that the airline will likely become profitable again by the Spring.


All in all, it seems that airlines that responded quickly to the pandemic by slimming down their schedules and prioritising their staff are now emerging relatively unscathed compared to their less weary competitors. There are also strong parallels between the levels of service which airlines offered their passengers and the success with which those same carriers retained staff and positioned themselves for future recovery.

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