Airlines weather the storm

2017 delivered some strong headwinds to the airlines sector. United Airlines, British Airways and Ryanair each experienced a major disruption. As 2017 draws to a close, we look back and examine how the airlines are recovering from their turbulent year.

Before taking a fresh look at how customers feel about their airlines, I want to revisit the why and how of what we do at Newton Insight.

Our aim is to identify the causes and strengths of emotional response, guided by the principal that reaction stimulates action. What we learn helps our clients to understand what their customers will do next.

To do this, we mine emotional signals in global social media and social networks. We measure how feelings are changing over time, or in response to a particular stimulus. Social media is sometimes described as the world’s largest focus group, and that is exactly how we use it.

Our hybrid tech-human approach means we can analyse large volumes of data quickly, and the results will be meaningful to our clients.

Our air travel data set is a good example of this. Knowing if customers are delighted or disappointed has implications for demand, pricing and recommendation. So there are compelling reasons to understand how the customer is feeling, and why.

The interactive charts you are looking at in this post are just the tip of a very large iceberg. Every time you click between two tabs, you are seeing the results of millions of data calculations which have been structured to  deliver a clear outcome.

Our air travel data set contains emotional signals from 1.5 million individual customers. That’s a lot of people and a far greater number than the audience samples typically used in customer research. We know which airlines people fly with, the routes they take and the purchases they make. We also know a lot about their priorities and the things they respond to. We analyse at scale but we report in detail.

These results cover the second half of the year up to mid-December. It’s always worth remembering that our approach is fast too.

The outcome for airlines in 2017

For ths post I have focused on the airlines which faced major challenges in 2017. Did the events in the first six months of this year cause a hangover in the second half? Or did the newspaper headlines mask more fundamental issues? I have included our topline findings; much more detail is available.


Use the cursors within each chart to scroll through performance data for each airline.


The % values in Figs 1 & 2 show customer reactions for each airline by emotion. The numeric values in Figs 3 & 4 show the strength of association between an airline and emotions. Values are indexed against the sector average. Results to the right of the y axis indicate that customers are more likely to express an emotion. 

A Long term view

I think it is important to note that the underlying challenges facing United, BA and Ryanair have a lifespan way beyond the disruption caused by the crises of 2017. Exceptional events are just that – unforeseen circumstances which are not part of the everyday customer experience. Once the shockwaves of a crisis dissipate, the regular concerns of customers are re-established. And so it is the case here.


United was by far the most discussed airline in the first half of the year, with almost half a million people contributing to the social media debate on the airline’s violent eviction of a passenger from an overbooked flight.

At an emotional level, the worldwide opprobrium heaped on United was fuelled by disgust, anger and fear. What made the United crisis different was the large number of non-passengers who were upset by it. Of the 500,000 people who expressed a reaction to the video footage, around 60 per cent of them offered no evidence that they were United customers.

In the second half of 2017, United experienced a recovery of sorts, with fewer expressions of negative emotions. There were small gains in passenger joy and trust as United got back to the business of flying people from A to B. On the subject of how United manages its regular schedule, passenger anger has remained stubbornly high because of concerns about the impact of cost-cutting on service quality. Such criticism was particularly voluble within United’s business travel customer base.



The computer outage suffered by BA over the May bank holiday generated a high level of customer frustration, but the underlying challenge for the company remains the long-term decline in confidence, expressed by high levels of customer disappointment and sadness.

There are signs that BA is addressing the problem. In the second half of the year, feelings of customer disappointment were marginally lower. There was also a small increase in expressions of customer joy, although BA still lags behind its rivals in giving customers reasons to celebrate.

In the second half, BA continued to over-index against other airlines for expressions of customer sadness, with disillusioned customers and ex-customers feeling the airline is ‘not what it was’. This is the real battleground for British Airways.

A higher sector index value for sadness has been the one constant in BA’s emotional footprint since the start of the year. Yes, customer sadness was lower in the second half, so perhaps customers are beginning to acquiesce to charges for in-flight catering and the lowering of expectations. But sadness is still more likely to be experienced by people flying with BA than other airlines. This differential is especially noticeable in long-haul, where Virgin, Emirates and Qantas all deliver a more positive emotional experience.



When we released our H1 findings in September, Ryanair was in the middle of its rescheduling crisis. This month Ryanair has had to contend with the threat of a pilots strike over Christmas. Consequently customer feelings of anxiety and mistrust have increased in the second half.

As with British Airways and United, Ryanair has underlying problems of its own. Behind the headline-grabbing events of September and December, customer feelings of anger and disgust increased due to the drip-feed of complaints about Ryanair’s seating policies and extra charges.

In a wider sector context, customers were more likely to be angered by Ryanair than by other airlines. In the second half of the year Ryanair over-indexed against its peers for all negative emotions apart from sadness. To compound the situation, positive feelings declined in the second half and this wasn’t simply a symptom of the rescheduling crisis. Expressions of joy and delight by customers travelling on regular flights were also noticeably lower.

Signs of recovery

Looking at the trends in customer emotion over the full year, the signs are that British Airways and United are moving slowly in the right direction. There is still work to do. British Airways needs to get to the root causes of customer sadness and disillusionment. For United, the challenge is – literally – to get its business passengers back on board.

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