Why Skytrax is dead [Plus: 7 insights into the future of airline brand ratings]

Recently, I discovered that Hainan Airlines of China has been awarded a “5 Star” status by Skytrax putting them in the same reign as Singapore Airlines and Qatar Airways. While Hainan might be a decent airline, putting it in the highest category seemed out of context. And it wasn’t just me, discussing sprouted up around the web on this. Someone on Airliners.net said that Skytrax is becoming “Skytrash”. Someone else called it “Skycash” due to allegations that airlines need to pay big to acquire a new star level.

I feel rating Hainan as Five Star was the final nail in the coffin for Skytrax. Here are three reasons why I believe Skytrax is dead:

  1. Irrelevant – If I’m a Kobe Bryant, then the only Business Class seat that’s Five Star for me is Oman Air’s – not Asiana or any other 5-star-classified airline. Because I can fit in there. Moreover, service and products differ dramatically for airlines on different routes and sectors. Hence, airlines ratings need to be relevant – which Skytrax is not.
  2. Not real-time- Annual ratings are no longer desirable as airline service levels can dramatically change over a much smaller period of time. Look at how Garuda Indonesia dramatically improved service in the last month. Moreover, passengers are now used to rating in real-time and also consume real-time data, which Skytrax doesn’t seem to support
  3. Not peer-reviewed- In the same vain as real-time, passengers are used to reading peer-reviews to determine which airline to fly, not annual “star ratings”. In fact, recently, the UK government announced that they’re withdrawing support for hotel star ratings, because consumers prefer peer-reviewed ratings.

What does the Twitterati think about Skytrax?

Again, these are just my own opinions. To verify them, I conducted a poll on Twitter, and here are some reactions from those who took part, along with the chart summarizing the poll results.

As you can see from the results of the poll, 81% of the respondents believed that Skytrax ratings are highly irrelevant. I guess that sends a clear signal to airline managers obsessed with achieving an additional Star on the Skytrax ratings to look elsewhere.

What is the future of airline ratings?

Now that the writing on the wall for Skytrax is quite clear, we should think about the future. For starters, there are alternates like Eezeer’s NOW ratings for airlines, TripAdvisor’s airline reviews and even Zagat ratings, which are much more real-time and relevant than Skytrax. A recent USA today article also evaluated a variety of airline ratings.

So now that travelers have a lot of alternates to Skytrax, airlines looking to adhere to the next wave of airline ratings need to consider a few facts. And here are 10 of those.

1.     Each flier is different in what he/she wants in a “perfect” airline. It depends on various factors which themselves vary between various (yes, another various) airlines. Hence, the difficulty of quantifying what makes an airline good. It’s purely subjective.

2.     Business travelers often prefer extra space (think laptops, business suits, comfort) along with lounge access, free pickups – and they will rate the airline differently than leisure travelers. In fact, each micro-segment will have it’s own way of assessing the quality of the airline -from backpackers, to gramdmoms. Airlines need focused differentiation. Don’t try to be everything to everyone!

3.    Presence of multiple surveys is more confusing than enlightening. Doesn’t really help since the traveller looking for advice due to their different results and interpretations of what is “best”. And airlines need to help simplify this process.

4.     Comparisons in surveys are often not done in a uniform manner. LCCs cannot be included in the same class as legacy carriers (Zagat Survey) since they serve different purposes and will have different offerings.

5.   Consumers can often see through the PR spin by airlines about rankings. Proclaiming a winner might be the result of a magazine/survey’s prejudices. So, be truthful, and don’t try to cover up your misgivings.

6.    While ratings matter, price is still a key factor for deciding which airline to fly on – followed by schedule and convenience. Hence, sort out the basics of what value you’re offering to the customers, before dedicating resources to managing ratings.

7. Airlines should ultimately have route managers being held responsible for ratings of their specific route, over time and versus competition on that route. And that’s when the overall impact will be felt.

Eventually, not only is it difficult to identify the “best” airline, I think the question is pointless until a standardised method of measurement is undertaken. Otherwise, we might as well say oranges are better than apples (which might be true depending on the person.) The counterpoint of course is that some airlines are indeed oranges while others are apples. So can airlines be truly compared since they all tend to offer value through differentiation and will tend to do better than other airlines on some counts and worse on some other counts.

Until we can truly quantify such problems and even them out, the question of best is useless. We should stick to systems that compare airlines across a list of measures and let the traveler decide which airline to fly depending on how *he* views the relative importance of those measures.

And the reality is that Skytrax is a 90s technology that faces sunset this year – and unless they re-invent themselves to incorporate real-time peer-reviews, be transparent about their rating system and use social media to engage with customers – they’re doomed.

What do you think? Let’s discuss on Twitter and in comments.

P.S: Special thanks to Shubhodeep Pal for help with this article

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Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam is the CEO of SimpliFlying and a globally sought-after consultant, speaker and thought-leader on airline branding and customer engagement strategy. He is also the youngest winner of the Global Brand Leadership Award and has addressed senior aviation executives globally, from Chile to Canada and from Sydney to San Francisco.Shashank's perspectives have found their way into major media outlets, including CNN Travel, CNBC, MSNBC, Bloomberg UTV, Mashable and in leading publications like Airline Business, ATW, Aviation Week, and others.Shashank studied Information Systems Management and Business Management at Singapore Management University and Carnegie Mellon University. Hailing from India, he splits his time between Singapore and Vancouver, among other cities.
Shashank Nigam
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Showing 10 comments
  • bsweigert
    Reply

    Shashank:

    You are missing the whole point about what Skytrax is. It’s a survey and research company that serves airlines and airports to survey their brand and product (with an emphasis on onboard product and service). The annual ratings are primarily meant for internal industry consumption. To get a look into the methodology, you have to be a participating industry client.

    As a B2B service, the Skytrax’s core business is not to airline consumers but the airlines themselves. Yet, it is true that the star ratings have become a coveted award in recent years and airlines that achieve 5 star rankings are quick to tout it.

    An impartial, standardized process is what the industry users need to provide a high-level overview of their brand and product. While real-time feedback and UGC are useful to look at from a tactical basis, there is a lot of noise and bias as the user base of a consumer-focused service like AirValid is not representative of the cross-section of any single airline’s customer base.

    Also, the surveys are biased by the fact that much of the responses come from the airline’s current customers. Airlines such as Hainan will have a different segment of travelers than say British Airways. Hainan’s customers may be less experienced travelers and rating Hainan’s service versus Air China or China Southern. On the other hand, British Airway’s customers are more likely to experienced travelers and have flow many airlines. While it makes comparisons more difficult, it is still useful for the airline in judging whether it is delivering the appropriate product and service for its customers.

    Yes, a bit “old school”, but dead? No way.

    • Shashank Nigam
      Reply

      I think from the survey and comments one case that's rested is that Skytrax is irrelevant for travelers. They don't refer to it and don't derive value from it. So, it's a #fail for the B2C model.

      Coming to B2B. Bruce, I do recognize that Skytrax is a market research company serving airlines, not directly serving consumers. But airlines care for the ratings right now due to the perceived notion that customers care for it. It won't work any longer if Qatar Airways says we're a “5 star airline” and yet the passenger still chooses another airline after reading reviews on Ezeeer right?

      Nevertheless, I do believe that Skytrax is still popular with airlines due to a lack of available alternatives for ratings targeted to airline managers. But then again, here's a scenario. I'd like you to consider.

      Imagine you're flying from Delhi to Amsterdam on British Airways, via London. The London-Delhi sector would be on a Boeing 777-300, have Hindi-speaking flight attendants, a variety of Indian meal options and a decent number of Bollywood movies on the IFE. Surely a four star experience, which is what the airline is rated on Skytrax. But the experience would be completely different on the London-Amsterdam flight. It is likely to be on a single-aisle Airbus 320, with no meal service and possibly charges for checking in bags. The experience – completely different from a “four star” expectation.

      As an airline manager, does Skytrax give you rating per route? Per aircraft type? per Season? For a specific customer segment? Probably not. And most importantly, it's not real-time. Things in aviation industry move too quickly to rely on annual surveys, and that's what is disconcerting. If it can't help a brand manager tweak things as they happen, it's probably not worth investing in.

      Hence, unless Skytrax re-invents itself, I do believe that it's a matter of time a credible alternate technology and methodology comes along and takes over as the leading metric, which is much more useful than a star rating.

      • bsweigert
        Reply

        Shashank:

        The airline star awards are similar to what the film industry gives to itself in the annual Academy Awards. Like the Academy Awards, the star awards does not mean that every customer on every flight is going to agree with it – its an aggregate rating.

        For Skytrax, the annual awards are an additional service that they do by aggregating standardized data where the same criteria is applied to all airlines. Its not meant to sell tickets and their business model is not to provide service to consumers (its a service to its airline subscribers) so how can you call it a #fail?

        For the detail analysis that a subscribing client receives, you have to be a client as these details are not made public. To answer your question – there is a lot that detail there including flight #, date of travel, route, etc.

        As for real time, it would be nice if an airline could change it product and configuration every time somebody tweets about it, but its simply not possible. Many product changes take months and years to make and can involved multiple millions of dollars of investments. As airlines refine their offerings, they will no doubt be taking into account what is being said on many of the online reviews, but they will also need customized, controlled research services from consultancies such as Skytrax. Customer research is not dead.

        For the consumer, there are a multitude of other other services as well to get at the granularity from everything from the right seat to pick to the right time to buy. Skytrax also has on its website user reviews for both airlines and airports.

    • David Hutchison
      Reply

      But I know one airline that emails all of its customer base and tells them to write to SKYTRAX about how wonderful the company is. People forward the email to friends and now people who don’t even fly are raving about the company. Please I find that no way to evaluate an airline. BTW that company wins top honors year after year.

  • Joel Chusid
    Reply

    Have you flown Hainan Airlines? I think you'd be surprised. It's not your typical Chinese airline. Skytrax's evaluators did a thorough review over several weeks of hundreds of touch points, and as they rate so many airlines, they can make objective comparisons. Still, there's always an element of subjectivity. I realize you may consider me biased as I'm a Hainan manager in the US, but I actually interface with the customers up close and personal. On their return to the US, overwhelmingly they have highly positive reactions, especially about premium class service. Skytrax is but one way airlines are measured, but of course it's not the only one.

  • E Kefallonitis, PhD
    Reply

    There are differences between airline brand evaluations based on (a) the airline corporate view (corporate brand assessment built on SKYTRAX and/ or other research data) and (b) the passenger view (voluntarily expressed by word of mouth, the use of social media etc.).

    Airline brands often carry certain service standards and customer expectations (Sackett and Kefallonitis, 2003). Equally, service quality, service levels and customer satisfaction are entities distant from actual customer understanding. Often customers (passengers) do not express what they actually mean in surveys (Kefallonitis and Sackett, 2003). This is the reason why an airline brand may achieve high rating on a SKYTRAX passenger satisfaction survey, but weak evaluations when it comes to word-of-mouth and passenger satisfaction expressed online.
    Literature relating to customer satisfaction may be distinguished between the study of pre-usage estimates and post-usage performance. According to the disconfirmation-of-expectations model of satisfaction (Voss et al., 1998), where an exploration of expectations towards satisfaction could be determined, customers make a post-purchase comparison between pre-purchase expectations and post-purchase performance (Oliver, 1980; Swan and Trawick, 1981; Tse and Wilton, 1988).

    In addition, passenger expression through the means of social media often demonstrates a form of personal beliefs and ideas. Such expression of passenger beliefs meets increasing popularity and is certainly an area we will all keep monitoring closely.

    Kefallonitis, E. G., and Sackett, P. J. (2003). Brand and Product Integration for Consumer Recognition: A Review. In: Design and Emotion, eds., Deana McDonagh, Paul Hekkert, Diane Gyi and Jeroen van Erp, Taylor & Francis, London
    Voss, G. B., Parasuraman A., and Grewal, D. (1998). The Roles of Price, Performance, and Expectations in Determing Satisfaction in Service Exchanges, Journal of Marketing 62 (4), 46-61, October.
    Oliver, R. L. (1980). A Cognitive Model of the Antecedents and Consequences of Satisfaction Decisions, Journal of Marketing Research 17 (November), 460-469.
    Sackett, P. J. and Kefallonitis, E. G. (2003). Using feature design to showcase the corporate brand, Brand Frontiers: Designing More than Experiences, Design Management Journal 14 (1), Winter
    Sultan, F., and Simpson, M. C. , Jr (2000). International service variants: airline passenger expectations and perceptions of service quality.
    Swan E. John, and Trawick Frederick I. (1981). Disconfirmation of Expectation and Satisfaction with a Retail Service, Journal of Retailing 57 (3), 49-67.
    Tse K. D., and Wilton C. P. (1988). Models of Consumer Satisfaction Formation: An Extension, Journal of Marketing Research 25, 204-212, May.

    © All rights reserved, Kefallonitis, E. G. 2011 (mailto:info@branding.aero)

  • chillinfart
    Reply

    Here in peru, Skytrax was giving awards for a drug involved airport (Jorge Chavez on Lima), that was also involved on corruption (before LAP management was from government and the process of transition has gaps).

    http://www.andina.com.pe/Ingles/noticia-perus-jorge-chavez-wins-award-as-best-airport-in-south-america-503239.aspx

    http://www.slideshare.net/raulwiener/lap-ral-wiener
    (in spanish)

  • Michael Schaible
    Reply

    I am sharing the opinion of the author. Skytrax is a corrupt and profit oriented organization. They rate airlines after checking their bank statements and receiving complimentary First Class tickets!

    Just as an example: in the last years Emirates has gradually moved far down by service and onboard product and should not appear somewhere in the top ten. But they still receive awards: they have a huge budget for marketing & “sponsorship”.

    Sorry, objective rating looks different. Maybe they should partner up with the FIFA, they can learn from each other.

    Kudos on Etihad which publicly rebuffed Skytrax.

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