The airline industry is a unique and fascinating industry that captures the interest of a wide audience because of its glamour, reach and impact on the large and growing number of travellers worldwide (Chan, 2000: 489). Yet, the removal of state support has forced many airlines, including Air Mauritius, to become much more customer/service orientated and to introduce cost control measures to improve efficiency. Even then, it provided airlines with greater flexibility to expand international routes further globalising industry competition.
Deregulation and liberalisation, privatisation and cooperation, and rising fuel costs have no doubt led to more competition and a shakeout of inefficiently operating airlines (Wirtz and Johnston, 2003; Cunningham et al. , 2002; Driver, 1999; Goh and Uncles, 2003). Forms of responses by existing airlines to the challenges posed by new foreign entrants have been for example through cost reductions, higher loading/occupancy rates-both for passengers and freight-and concentration through mergers and acquisitions (Hanlon, 2003).
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At the same time, many airline companies are entering into collaboration and partnerships in areas such as maintenance of carriers, code sharing, and reservation systems amongst others. As recognised by Goh and Uncles (2003), airlines that do not participate in alliances will be severely disadvantaged and may be forced into becoming niche players. This concentration will continue in the fore-seeable future thereby leading to competition shifting from individual airlines to collaborative airline networks. Consequently, responsiveness and flexibility among the networks will have to be real-time and trustful (MK Annual Report, 2004).
In line with the global trends in the aviation industry, large carriers and smaller ones have made service quality a centrepiece of their corporate and marketing strategy. Mega carriers such as Singapore Airlines (SIA), British Airways (BA) and Emirates have pushed the boundaries of service quality to its limit through service personalisation, quality meals, and greater variety of in-flight entertainment, modern aircraft, and frequent flyer programmes (Zaid, 1994; Sultan and Simpson, 2000; Wirtz and Johnston, 2003).
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Many at times, the role of smaller carriers has been marginalised and reduced to providing efficient feeder services to bigger carriers (Chan, 2000; Dana and Vignali, 1999). In addition, flag carriers such as Air Mauritius, Air Seychelles and South African Airways have been unable to shed their historical and political roles to enable them to realise their full potential. The emergence of branding as a corporate tool for service differentiation and positioning has enabled the same flag carriers to get instant recognition to customers.
Consequently, they have no options other than to improve the quality of their service, as we must recognize the fact that both poor and outstanding service has a strong emotional impact on customers (Wirtz and Johnston, 2003). As a result, the customers develop an attitude toward the organisation, its staff and its services, and these influence their loyalty levels. Despite considerable work undertaken in the area of service quality, there is no consensus so far with regard to which measurement scales are robust enough for measuring and comparing service quality (Jain and Gupta, 2004).
The service literature proposes a number of models, the most popular being SERVQUAL and SERVPERF. Numerous studies have tried to assess the superiority of the two scales with no conclusive evidence as to which one is a better scale. Over the years, SERVQUAL has emerged as the most popular standardised questionnaire to measure service quality. The model is operationalised through a battery of twenty-two expectations and perception statements. It measures “Gap 5” of the Gaps model of service quality. Parasuraman et al.
(1985, 1988) identified five service dimensions that were capable of discriminating well across respondents having differing quality perceptions about firms in several categories, and these were namely: Tangibles: Physical facilities, equipment, and appearance of personnel Reliability: Ability to perform the promised service dependably and accurately Responsiveness: Willingness to help customers and provide prompt service Assurance: Knowledge and courtesy of employees and their ability to inspire trust and confidence
Empathy: Caring, individualised attention the firm provides its customers The last two items contain items representing seven of the original dimensions namely: communication, credibility, security, competence, courtesy, understanding/knowing customers, and access. Reliability emerged as the most critical dimension in various studies followed by responsiveness, assurance, empathy, and finally tangibles. The questionnaire used for the study, measured customers’ perceptions and expectations on a seven-point Likert scale anchored on from ‘Strongly Agree’ (1) to ‘Strongly Disagree’ (7).
Among the group of “older children”, Singapore Airlines is as good as any other airline, perhaps slightly better. Their website has a feature where you can order the childrens' meals in advance, so you can be sure of what they are getting to eat, which is particularly useful on long flights. The airhostesses are very friendly to children and there is the usual complement of toys and games and the entertainment system to keep the children busy. For infants and toddlers, on the contrary, the facilities are not that great. The bassinets are tiny flat beds that are only good for children less than a year old.
Even then, there is absolutely no space for the infants to wiggle about for even the slightest amount. They are strapped down with a wide belt that goes from the neck down to the stomach. The kids have to lie on their back and not move a single muscle. Singapore Airlines' policies dictate that the parents pick up the babies out of the bassinet every time the pilot makes a turbulence-warning announcement. For some reason, on two occasions when this chanced, both times, the number of announcements was overwhelming, much more than one can encounter on other airlines such as British Airways.
The cabin lights and the too frequent announcements on the flights were also irksome and not only for the children, but for many of the adults too. Service quality is recognised to be the cornerstone for operational efficiency and business profitability. Customer loyalty through improved service has become vital for small airlines to survive in this increasingly competitive global environment. Cluster analysis is used to identify different segments of customers based on their expectations and perceptions that enable Airlines and Airways to customise their services.
Three groupings of customers were identified, namely those that are indifferent to service levels, those that perceive service quality to be poor and those that believe service levels are good. Research shows that nationality has a significant influence on both expectations and perceptions of the South Africans, the British and the Mauritians. Demographic characteristics of passengers had a significant impact on clusters of service levels. The findings allow the airline to emphasise the right service dimensions in its marketing communications to different target markets.
Service and branding strategies should reflect the cultural and social background of the traveller. The conceptualisation of service quality, its relationship to satisfaction, and methods of measuring it, has been a central theme of service literature over the past 25 years. Whilst there may be general agreement that the evaluation of services is more subjective than that of tangible goods and that an understanding of consumers is central to understanding service quality, there has been less agreement about how to operationalise service quality as a construct (Gabbott and Hogg, 1997: 171).
Least of all, quality itself has been a subject of intense debate in the literature. Kasper et al. (1999: 188), defines service quality as “the extent to which the service, the service process and the service organisation can satisfy the expectations of the user. ” Some prominent definitions include “conformance to requirements” (Crosby, 1984), “fitness for use” (Juran, 1988), or “one that satisfies the consumer” (Eiglier and Langeard, 1987). As per the Japanese production philosophy, quality implies zero defects in the service offering.
Therefore, service quality is an enduring construct that encompasses quality performance in all activities undertaken by management and employees. “The proof of service quality is in its flawless performance,” (Berry and Parasuraman, 1991). In 1978, Gronroos proposed that service quality was divisible into two components – technical quality and functional quality. Technical quality refers to what the service provider delivers during the service provision process. On the one hand, some propose that functional quality refers to “how the service is provided by the service employee.
” On the other hand, Parasuraman et al. (1988) propose that customer perceptions of service quality are a function of the difference between service expected and customer perceptions of the actual service delivered. The service expectations are normative expectations indicative of customer expectations for what should happen during the service encounter. Service quality has become an important research topic because of its relationship to costs(Kasper et al. , 1999; Zeithaml, 2000; Anderson et al. , 1994), profitability(Zeithaml, 1988; Zeithaml, 2000; Rust et al. 1995), customer satisfaction (Smith et al.
, 1999; Taylor and Baker, 1994; Spreng and Mackoy, 1996; Oliva et al. , 1992), customer retention(Zeithaml et al. , 1996; Crosby et al. , 1990), and word of mouth(Herrington et al. , 1996; Zeithaml et al. , 1988). In the airline industry, researches on service quality are numerous (Frost and Kumar, 2001; Robledo, 2001; Sultan and Simpson, 2000; Nel et al. , 1997; Cunningham et al. , 2002; Ling et al. , 2005). The application of various methods of measuring service quality range from regular service ratings by passengers through in-flight surveys to survey audits, market studies, complaint and compliment monitoring (Zaid, 1995).
Low quality of service levels among airlines in Africa is partly due to lack of competition among flag carriers. Government support and funding create a false bubble of financial safety for many of them. Restrictive bilateral agreements continue to predominate while the Yamoussoukro declaration, already a decade old, failed to convince many African countries to join the bandwagon of liberalisation within regional groupings before being able to negotiate with other groups.
Unlike their American, European, and Asian counterparts, African airline companies have yet to realise the potential of deregulation, code-sharing, and sub-contracting (Dana and Vignali, 1999). These trends have improved service quality for mega carriers elsewhere. Nevertheless, the SADC community is attempting to create a free trade zone among member countries that has one of its goal being the creation of an ‘open-sky’. Mauritius, being part of SADC, is gradually implementing an open sky policy to attract more tourists to the island.
But there are concerns about how much foreign ownership or control of airlines should be allowed among member countries (Chidambaram, 1999). Smaller airlines have to work rather than compete with mega carriers. It will promote co-operation across industry frontiers in order to create a new value chain for the customer and hence capture a greater share of the customer’s wallet to be shared among the network members. In such a context, most probably, national policies will have to give way to global policies (Chidambaram, 1999: 9), and service levels, customer loyalty and firm’s profitability is bound to improve as a result.
It is only through partnership and networking that the sphere of influence of smaller airlines can be extended in the realm of joint marketing. Lately a growing body of literature has emerged on the impact of cultural background on customer expectations and perceptions of service (Ling et al. , 2005; Cunningham et al. , 2002; Sultan and Simpson, 2000). The applicability of SERVQUAL as an instrument for measuring service quality across cultures is questionable.
Mattila (1999) found that customers from Western cultural backgrounds are more likely to rely on tangible cues from the physical environment to evaluate service quality compared to customers from Asia. Furrer, Lui and Sudharshan (2000) conclude that customers from different cultures assigned different importance weights to the five SERVQUAL dimensions, which in turn is reflected in their perceptions of service quality. Sultan and Simpson indicated that customer expectations and perceptions varied by nationality in an international environment.
Service quality ratings of European passengers were significantly indicative of lower quality as contrasted to those by US passengers. Cross-cultural comparison between American and Mexican consumers revealed that Mexicans had poorer perceptions of service quality in comparison to their American counterparts on the evaluation of products and services in general. Service quality has been shown to lead to different behavioural intentions with respect to customers from different cultures (Liu et al. , 2001).
In addition, little has been done to examine the applicability of service quality models to the service industries in developing countries (Jain and Gupta, 2004). Despite the various criticisms of the SERVQUAL model, it is still the most widely used scale for measuring service quality. The SERVQUAL scale has been applied to airlines (Nel et al. , 1997; Sultan and Simpson, 2000; Cunningham et al. , 2002), hotels (Ingram and Daskalakis, 1999; Juwaheer, 2004), financial services (Kangis and Passa, 1997; Lassar et al. , 2000), health care (Desombre and Eccles, 1998; Kilbourne et al. , 2004) and the public sector (Donnelly et al.
, 1995; Brysland and Curry, 2001). Consequently, this study uses the model to identify any shortfall in service levels by clustering passenger expectations and perceptions. A customer will perceive quality in a positive way only when the service provider meets or exceeds his expectations (Parasuraman et al. , 1985, 1988; Bitner, 1990; Robledo, 2001). Many passengers were of the opinion that the airline’s friendly staff, attention to details, good route development, in-flight service, and high quality perception of the destination, British Airways contributed to perceptions of high service levels.
However, technical problems with the aircraft, poor on-time performance and complaints about pre-flight procedures were their main areas of concern. They felt that training of employees would greatly contribute to the airline providing an excellent service, as far as the student population studying in Cape Town was concerned based on the views of three of them who were interviewed. They indicated that they were very satisfied with the service provided. They had no complaints on pre-flight procedures but they mentioned dissatisfaction with food variety, in-flight entertainment and high fares.
The most eye-catching aspect one gets when using the Singapore airline is the way their staff are smarter and more presentable than for example British Airways. The airhostesses’ uniforms are arguably the best in the whole world. To support my point, here is an illustration: a customer once said, “I don't know who designed the air hostesses' dresses, but hats off to them. They are sensuous - tucked in at the right places, flaring at the right places, very feminine and alluring, and it is amazing how gracefully and comfortably they are able to move about in what seem to be form-fitted clothes.
They even have shoes to match! I would be jealous if I weren't so enthralled. ” The degrading feature about Singapore Airline that the British Airways seems to have an upper hand in is its infant care. Most travellers of the Singapore Airline always complain of their babies having to lie on their backs all the way during the flight, which happens not to be the case with the British Airways as most parents compliment its services. One parent was quoted saying, “I wish all airlines would get the reclining kind of bassinets, the ones that are similar to car seats and in which the children are belted down like in car seats.
Children do not have to lie flat on their backs (is particularly helpful if their noses are stuffy) and they can at least move their arms and legs. British Airways is the only airline I've seen this in but unfortunately the rest of their service is not all that great. ” Most parents who use Singapore Airlines find comfort in the way the airline staff are generous with baby food (Heinz) and diapers for the little ones and their staff are truly baby-friendly, which is a delight. This obscures the fact that the airline is discriminatory towards infants, toddlers and the elderly who are perceived by the staff to be a bother.
For infants and toddlers especially, the facilities are not that great. The baby beds are tiny and flat and are only good for very young children (a year and less old). In addition, space for the infants to squirm as children mostly prefer to do is very limited. They are strapped down with a wide belt that goes from the neck down to the stomach. Attention for the elderly is rationed- measly-as they are not considered as the target group for the airline, as opposed to British airways, which seems to be most devoted to this group of people.
Individual airlines may themselves have no direct control over some of the factors that affect productivity, for example, routes may be fixed which in turn leads to fixed stage lengths. Comparative productivity may therefore be misleading. Standardised productivity ratios have to be adjusted, using the results from the regression analysis, to allow for any fixed effects and thus provide a level playing field comparison. The estimates for passenger services suggest that out of thirty-six major international airlines Virgin airlines is consistently ranked the most productive; British Airways also performs well and is ranked fifth.
Two most widely cited reasons for observed productivity differences between British airways and Singapore airways are the differences in route mix and the differences in quality of the airlines. It is assumed that an airline that makes more stopovers requires a large ground workforce than one with more direct flights. The principle indicator of differences in route mixes is the average stage length, which is the average length of journey travelled by each passenger or tonne of freight. Qualitative differences are both hard to measure and hard to interpret.
The average percentage of seats occupied per flight or load factor has been suggested as an indicator of quality. With fewer seats occupied, those passengers receive a superior in-flight service than if more seats were occupied. Simple indicators such as load factors and average number of cabin attendants may shed a little light, but interpretation of these statistics should be treated with caution. The number of cabin attendants employed by an airline as a percentage of total employees has been calculated before.
Research shows that most airlines employ between 15% and 35% of their staff as cabin attendants. Airlines that hire a larger percentage of cabin attendants include Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific. This could be either due to a higher quality in-flight service or to the predominance of long haul flights (fewer stopovers would indicate the need for fewer ground staff, which, other factors kept constant, would imply an increase in the percentage of cabin attendants employed in relation to the total number of employees) or some combination of the two.
Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific all have a high ratio of long to short haul flights thus reliable inference can be made from this statistics. The British Airways on the other hand is perceived to make more stopovers, which conversely implies more ground workforce and hence fewer cabin attendants and this may explain why it is perceived to maintain lower customer satisfaction.
As well, its (British Airways’) large number of passengers may also be another factor to be put into consideration, because its is considered relatively flexible by many hence lower cabin-attendant- to-customer- ratio. Some data and tables comparing diverse aspects of airlines are given below. The data were taken from four sources, three published by the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the other by the International Air Transport Association. The first publication used was the Civil Aviation Statistics of the world 1992 (1993) Eighteenth Annual Edition.
ICAO(1993) (1994). These documents presented an airline by airline breakdown of passenger load factors and passenger and freight revenues. The data presented in these publications is predominantly for scheduled international airlines, with only limited data for non-scheduled services: REFERENCES W. E. Anderson, C. Fornell, & D. R. Lehmann,Customer satisfaction, market share, and profitability: findings from Sweden. Journal of Marketing, 58, July 53-66. 1994. J. C. Driver, Developments in airline marketing practice.
Journal of Marketing Practice: Applied Marketing Science. 5 (5), 134-150. 1999. M. Gabbott, and G. Hogg, Contemporary Services Marketing Management. The Dryden Press. 1997. P. Hanlon, Global Airlines, Competition in a Transnational Industry. Butterworth- Heinemann, Oxford, 2003. J. M. Juran, Juran on Planning for Quality. New York: The Free Press, New York, 1988. H. Kasper, P. V. Helsdingen, and V. D. Vries, Services Marketing Management. John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1999.
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