Overall passenger satisfaction in Asia is lower than expected, but the causes of dissatisfaction among Asian travelers differ dramatically from those in the other leading aviation markets, North America and Europe.

Joe Leader, CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience (APEX) Association shared details of the organization’s findings with attendees at the APEX Asia Conference in Singapore.

“We saw so much of a difference among Asian travelers that they really were not as highly satisfied as any of their counterparts in the rest of the world,” Leader said, “which was surprising to us given the quality of the carriers in the region. Also we were surprised by their desire for entertainment and for comfort over space.”

APEX finds that, overall, only 29% of Asian travelers report being “highly satisfied” with their air travel experience, compared with 39% of North American travelers and 37% of European travelers.

The primary sources of dissatisfaction for Asian travelers are with the ground experience. Only 30% of passengers are satisfied with the check-in process, 25% satisfied with their experience at the gate, and 28% satisfied with the boarding process.

Crowded and Comfortable

In the air, Asian travelers are generally more satisfied than international counterparts with the majority of passenger experience criteria measured by the APEX Association which ranges from ambient factors, such as overall aircraft cleanliness (74% satisfied) to comfort facors, like distance to neighbor onboard (45% satisfied).

But crowded and comfortable mean two very different things in Asia than they do in North America and Europe.

Only 23% of Asian travelers (regardless of height) said they would appreciate more legroom. Only 12% (regardless of weight) said they would prefer more seat width. But 30% said they want the seats to be more comfortable.

This contrasts with the U.S. where 38% of passengers want more legroom, 14% said they want wider seats and only 15% said they would value more comfortable seats. In Europe, the results are 35% for legroom, 12% for seat width, and 21% for more comfortable seating.

Asian passengers also value the more abstract concept of greater separation from fellow passengers less than more comfortable seats. Only 12% responded that this separation is a critical factor for their passenger satisfaction. North American and European passengers value this measure of personal space, slightly higher (15% of passengers in both regions list it as a priority).

“What appears to be significant is the weight correlation. Passengers that weighed less [irrespective of height] had less issues with the seat and there were fewer correlations to height,” Leader says. “I would have predicted that we saw greater correlation to height than to weight, because weight is more of a width factor and not a distance factor. I think it was perceived amount of space [that mattered].”

Seat comfort, in Asia, is therefore driven more by the design of a particular seat than its location in the cabin or the relative cabin density.

Let Us Entertain You

For APEX Association members, many suppliers of in-flight entertainment equipment, content, and in-flight connectivity service providers, there was very good news in the APEX report. And it’s also good news for airlines focused on increasing cabin density which want to attract more Asian passengers.

The APEX study found that Asian passengers are significantly more likely to lose themselves in the joys of in-flight entertainment than travelers anywhere else in the world.

Measured among top priorities for passenger experience improvements, 22% of Asian passengers surveyed listed entertainment, whereas only 8% in North America and 15% in Europe felt the same.

The next highest region to value entertainment onboard, the Middle East, showed only 16% of passengers with a marked preference for entertainment as a driver of satisfaction.

Details Matter

IATA has previously determined, that Asian passengers are very particular about the details of their cabin experience, and especially critical of the modernity of the electronic in-flight entertainment systems they find onboard.

The challenges of developing, certifying and installing traditional embedded in-flight entertainment equipment generate a lag between that technology and consumer electronics.

As Leader explains, “From the supplier side, my #1 concern is how do we, as an industry, make it so that the products we’re installing today are flexible for tomorrow. I see installations done where it’s viewed as a 5-10 year lifespan. We need to be thinking, from a software perspective, how that can be upgraded every year or two.”

Leader believes the industry can be forward thinking in this respect. Improving technology “just as the technology in our smart phones evolves, every year or so, and we are able to enjoy the features.”

Enjoy Ours vs. Bring Your Own

While the industry is working to improve the interval of deployment for embedded IFE, the Bring-Your-Own Entertainment model may be appropriate for many of these passengers.

The APEX study found that 75% of Asian passengers travel with smartphones and 40% use them on board; 55% travel with tablet devices and 32% use them onboard.

For now, long-haul flights have been the domain of embedded IFE systems, and Leader dismisses doomsayers who have long predicted the demise of embedded in-flight entertainment. He rightly points out that more airlines are installing these sytems than ever before, despite the fact that people have been tolling bells on IFE for years.

Even so, technology trends, and the complexities of installation and upkeep, as well as the negative aftermarket value of these devices work against them.

During the recent IATA World Passenger Summit, His Excellency Akbar Al Baker, the outspoken CEO of Qatar Airways suggested that the sun may soon set on embedded systems in favor of Bring Your Own Device streaming entertainment systems.

But Leader points to another dominant trend that airlines should consider before tearing out their seat-back screens: passengers like to multiscreen in the air as they do at home.

Watching a movie on the seat-back screen while using personal electronic devices for other activities is not uncommon, in Asia or elsewhere.

Furthermore, airlines have negotiated contracts with studios for early window screening of films passengers could not see elsewhere. While there has been talk of early window content coming to personal electronic devices, nothing has yet been confirmed.

Last, passengers, wherever they may be, don’t like to have anything taken away from their passenger experience. Once a feature is offered, its removal can lead to strong passenger dissatisfaction.

Qatar Airways’ CEO acknowledged that it’s critical to ensure passengers don’t feel short changed, when he made his controversial prediction on the future of embedded IFE.

“Once you give [passengers] something, you cannot take it away,” Al Baker said.

Whatever strategies airlines ultimately adopt, with Asian passengers they have the security that ensuring greater passenger satisfaction is worth the investment. “Asian passengers are the most willing to pay for passenger experience,” Leader says.

Photo Credit: In-flight entertainment on a Qtar Air flight. FC Media