The aviation sector did more than any other to damage its reputation over the last year through poor customer service and increasing complaint levels, a study claims.

The sector saw a 4.3 percentage point rise to 17.1% in customers citing it among the worst sectors for service.

This was the biggest increase of the 14 major industries covered in the latest annual study by service design consultancy Engine.

Despite the drop for air travel, public transport (cited by 38%) and utilities (37%) are regarded as the worst sectors overall for customer service.

Restaurants (cited by 47%) and hotels (46%) increased their lead in being seen as the best sectors for service.

However, when it comes to the best individual companies for service, retail dominates with Amazon leading the way followed by John Lewis, M&S, Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

Engine’s co-founder Joe Heapy said:  “British Airways’ IT melt-down and the United Airlines’ passenger incident were the most high-profile examples in an industry that seems to be struggling to look after its customers.

“However, it wasn’t just that the incidents were bad, arguably it was their response that caused as much anger, particularly in BA’s case. In an era of rampant cost cutting, their actions and reactions can give the impression that people are more akin to cargo than passengers.”

He added: “The aviation industry is fundamentally challenged by the disjointed passenger experience, from booking a ticket to arriving at the destination, caused by the plethora of stakeholders and companies involved.

“However, most customers don’t know where the responsibility of one begins and ends, and when something goes wrong they don’t want to waste time tracking down the responsible party, they just need the problem solved.

“As such, aviation companies need to establish solid partnerships and not just see themselves as delivering a particular piece of the jigsaw but as hospitality providers instead. If the focus shifts to welcoming, supporting and entertaining passengers as guests, people’s perception will be transformed.

“The leading sectors and companies in customer service don’t think of it as an add-on at the front line, they put as much effort into designing the customer experience as they do their actual products.”