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Size Matters: How Airline Size Affects Customer Satisfaction

When I think of many large corporations I think of commodity products rather than quality. Most airlines these days are large corporations – or part of a group of airlines – with thousands of staff around the world.

As a measure of size, it is the older carriers that have the largest fleets of aircraft (1. American, 2. Delta, 3. United).

Does the size of an airline affect brand image, or more importantly, passenger satisfaction?

Methodology

Skytrax is arguably the most well know measure of airline rankings. Released every year since 2012, I am using the latest 2016 version. In their own words the Skytrax ranking is a:  “Quality analysis across hundreds of categories for both airline product and service delivery, covering the Onboard and home-base Airport environments.”

Similarly Airhelp produces their own AirHelp Score that ranks airlines on three measures: quality and service, on-time performance, and the ease of making a claim (for delayed flights, etc).

Using data from Airfleets (April 2016) I was able to measure an airline by size of its fleet. My assumption is that airlines with larger fleets will have the more staff.

I did consider using market capitalisation as a measure of size but due to differences in company dynamics (airline groups, traded on different markets / volumes, etc) I decided against doing so.

Results

Airlines with most aircraft

Count of aircraft top 10 by fleet size

Download chart.

The top 4 airlines by fleet size are all based in the US. They are also considerably larger than the next biggest airline, China Southern (who operate 200 fewer planes).

Airline Fleet Rank (04/16) Skytrax rank 2016 AirHelp Score rank (Autumn 16)
American Airlines 1 77 28
Delta Air Lines 2 35 31
United Airlines 3 68 16
Southwest Airlines 4 66 #N/A
China Southern Airlines 5 32 66
China Eastern Airlines 6 79 74
Air China 7 87 77
Turkish Airlines 8 7 60
Lufthansa 8 10 11
British Airways 10 26 12

Full list.

Only one of the top 10 airlines by fleet size is in the Skytrax top 10, Turkish (7th). None of the 10 airlines with the largest fleets make the AirHelp Score top 10.

Histogram of airline fleet size

Download chart.

The top 10 airlines by fleet size are considerably larger than the competition. Most airlines (83/100) operate less than 200 planes, 53 operate fewer than 100.

Skytrax 2016 Top 10

Skytrax ranking 2016 - Top 10 changes since 2012

Download chart.

Download the full Skytrax Top 100 ranking.

Qatar has held either the 1st or 2nd spot in the Skytrax ranking since 2012 (currently ranked 2nd). Emirates, currently ranked 1st, has seen a more turbulent rise to the top (placed 8th in 2012, 4th in 2014, and 5th in 2015).

Airline Fleet Rank (04/16) Skytrax rank 2016 AirHelp Score rank (Autumn 16)
Emirates 11 1 12
Qatar Airways 18 2 1
Singapore Airlines 40 3 4
Cathay Pacific Airways 31 4 7
ANA All Nippon Airways 16 5 #N/A
Etihad Airways 34 6 #N/A
Turkish Airlines 8 7 60
EVA Air 57 8 #N/A
Qantas Airways 38 9 #N/A
Lufthansa 8 10 11

Full list.

5 of the top 10 Skytrax ranked airlines are ranked 30th and below for fleet size. This suggests smaller airlines offer better service. Conversely, for the airlines where an AirHelp Score exists many rank fairly highly. The anomaly being Turkish Airlines who have the 6th largest fleet size, a Skytrax rank of 7th, but a very poor AirHelp Score ranked 60th.

AirHelp Score Autumn 2016 Top 10

Airscore ranking 2016 Top 10 changes

Download chart.

Download the full AirHelp Score ranking.

Qatar ranks perfectly in 1st for all periods of the AirHelp Score ranking, beating its Skytrax rankings. Virgin Atlantic has seen the best improvement of AirHelp Score rank moving from 38th – 6th position in just one year!

Airline Fleet Rank (04/16) Skytrax rank 2016 AirHelp Score rank (Autumn 16)
Qatar Airways 18 2 1
Austrian 54 19 2
Air Dolomiti #N/A #N/A 2
Singapore Airlines 40 3 4
KLM 23 24 5
Virgin Atlantic 76 28 6
Cathay Pacific Airways 31 4 7
Air Canada 15 31 7
Air Baltic #N/A #N/A 7
Finnair 70 27 10

Full list.

Again, most of the airlines in the AirHelp Score top 10 are smaller airlines (8 are ranked 30th and below by fleet size). That said, many of these airlines are brand names in the industry.

Improvements

Skytrax and Airhelp rankings are good baselines to understand customer satisfaction, however, only give and aggregated of customer satisfaction. Delays, number of flights, food quality are raw metrics that will give a better view of where airlines perform best.

tl;dr

Larger airlines (by fleet size) tend to offer worse service than their smaller counterparts.

Footnotes

  1. Data sources + data used in this post.

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