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Is It Really Our Fault That Flights Are Getting More Uncomfortable?

Is It Really Our Fault That Flights Are Getting More Uncomfortable?
Jeff Edwards

U.S. Airlines have long insisted that disappearing amenities and shrinking legroom are a direct result of consumer preferences, a just-released MSN poll seems to support that position.

When facing questions about ever decreasing seat pitch, scaled-back inflight amenities and a la carte pricing for everything from snacks to checked bags, U.S. airline officials have a remarkably consistent message – given a choice, passengers overwhelmingly choose cheap base fare over any other factor when booking flights. Airlines unapologetically insist that in order to survive in the free market, luxuries such as extra legroom, meal service and free checked bags have necessarily been traded for cost savings and cheaper ticket prices.

Frontier Airlines Chairman Bill Franke may have summed up the prevailing attitude of the airline industry best in off-the-cuff comments he made at the most recent Dubai Airshow in November. The budget airline official didn’t mince words.

“The consumer is essentially like your teenage spoiled brat,” Franke told industry insiders gathered at the event. “They had been flying with all the amenities for ever and ever and that’s what they think they ought to get. They don’t want to pay any more for the ticket, they just want all the amenities.”

It turns out Franke has a valid point. A recent survey by MSN and Business Insider found that 51 percent of U.S. air travelers consider ticket price the single most important factor when booking a flight. Convenience of the itinerary was a distant second. If these poll results are any indication, any airline that touts inflight amenities, customer service or legroom might just be barking up the wrong tree, as cheap fares and direct flights appear far more likely to entice consumers.

For the 49 percent of us who would prefer enough room to bend our knees, the airlines say they have us covered as well, but it’s gonna cost you.

“[Consumers] criticize us if we charge for more legroom,” former United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek told attendees of an industry banquet in July 2015. “Let me tell you though: That’s what businesses do. If you want more data on your data plan so you can watch faster, better cat videos, you call AT&T, and they’re happy to increase your data plan -and they charge you for it. That’s what businesses do.”

[Photo: Shutterstock]

View Comments (9)

9 Comments

  1. MrBizFlyer

    May 17, 2018 at 3:09 pm

    Airlines really need to rethink their business models. Case in point, computers and mobile phones continue to come down in price and improve in features. I can buy a new iPhone for $800 that I can utilize literally 16 hours a day every day for about two years or I can buy a seat on a plane that I will utilize for 8 to 10 hours flying from the US to Europe for $800 – which one has better value? The LEAST airlines can do is throw in some peanuts and leg room.

    Here are some suggestions:
    1. Start using a “subscription model” and offer a guaranteed seat on a flight from your preferred routes for say $100/month. Want guaranteed premium economy – $120/month, business $200/month. Then the cost of the flight is fixed based on the number of days out you book (30 days out add $300, 60 days out $200, etc). You now have revenue to make the experience better on the planes for those paying for the privilege.

    2. The reason people choose lowest cost fare is because we know the airlines are jerking us around with the price of flights. I’ve literally paid $400 to fly from US to Brussels vs $1500 from US to Amsterdam on the same airline itinerary. It makes zero sense. Imagine if Apple charged $1200 for a phone if you bought it in New York but only $300 if you bought it in Miami. Do you think people would get a bit upset and simply flock to the cheapest price point?

    3. Why the HUGE price disparity between business and economy seating? Case in point, flight from Dallas to London a month out is $860 in economy. Business class? $8950. The seats and service in business class are not 10 times better than economy. Again, this makes zero sense. Sell business class for a reasonable amount – maybe 2.5 times economy but even that is a stretch.

  2. HMPS

    May 17, 2018 at 4:13 pm

    Who is MSN that conducted this survey ? How many were surveyed? What demographics ?

  3. southpac

    May 17, 2018 at 6:19 pm

    wow. Someone needs to learn what seat pitch actually is. It’s not a measure of legroom.

    Many airlines are reducing seat pitch, but at same time increasing legroom. How ? By using slimline seats, which has seat backs up to 4 inches thinner. So can decrease seat pitch by 3 inches & increase legroom by 1 inch.

    Seat width hasn’t changed EVER on most of the worlds fleet which are narrowbodied jets, B737, B757, A318/319/320/321.

    It’s only on some A330s that some airlines choose to go 9 across in economy rather than 8 across, or 10 across in a B777 instead of 9 across(& some variation in new B787) & most of these are LCCs with very low fares.

  4. southpac

    May 17, 2018 at 6:21 pm

    many people realise that they don’t need 100lbs(46kgs) of checked luggage. They only carried that much in the past, cos they could without costing anymore. We go skiing often & take skis, boots & poles & clothing & stay under 23kgs(50lb) total, as the airlines we fly are cheaper, but only allow 23kgs not 46kgs.

  5. am1108

    May 17, 2018 at 8:36 pm

    I partially agree, remember that Spirit was the first one to become an ULCC and then of course they survived many years with that business model that we now have Frontier who recently changed into one and then I believe Sky Country has plans or is in the process to become another one and to add fuel , of course the big 3 have followed suit by offering Basic Economy and its trickling down to the last of the hold outs (JetBlue & Alaska) with the former having trimmed benefits and the latter with plans to start BE….

    To MrBizFlyers point to charge $800 to fly from the US to Europe- Most people like the convenience that you can get from the US to Europe for 8-12 hours and to Asia from at least 16 hours… I don’t think anyone wants to take 1-2 months off to go by boat. You are paying for the convenience to get there in the shortest time and of course the airlines know this and can charge for that. As far as the $8,000 Intl J fares the airlines know they can charge this because they know that most J pax are not paying out of their own pockets but rather the companies that they work for (consulting, banking, etc.) are shelling out money for those fares. In addition most international aircraft seem to have lie flat seating and are improving in amenities for those passengers at the expense of packing everyone else like sardines in economy, but it works.

    Unfortunately, like they say “You never know what you got until its gone”

  6. Xnuiem

    May 18, 2018 at 6:53 am

    @MrBizFlyer

    You are making so many assumptions here which drive very inaccurate summaries.

    1) Consumer technology products continue to decrease in cost, yes. But they actually are increasing in price. The cost of an iPhone keeps going down to produce, but the latest models, even adjusted for inflation, are the most expensive to the consumer. And this on top of telecoms slashing subsidies. The cost of airliners, labor, gas, airport fees, have all gone up overall considerably over the last 20 years.

    2) The difference is cost-based pricing vs value-based pricing. Business class seats sell, so they are sold for what they are worth, which has nothing, 0, to do with what they cost to operate/purchase. These are high-risk for-profit companies. In a commodity market, which seats on a given route are, they should sell the seat for the highest price they can get. The RT DFW LHR on AA/BA runs about $4000-5000 usually in J. Maybe it is more than 7 times more valuable than the Y fare, maybe not. It depends on the person paying the bill. But that is a high business route with a lot of connections on both sides, and the J cabins are always full, so we pay it. I pay it to get there rested and ready to work that day. That day of work is easily worth the $3000 to my organization. But again, this has ZERO to do with the cost of the good/service, but what someone will pay for it.

  7. bost

    May 18, 2018 at 4:17 pm

    If booking sites sorted by $ / square foot then suddenly everything would change.

  8. FlyingNone

    May 18, 2018 at 9:32 pm

    @MrBizFlyer,
    Pay in advance (subscription) for Premium Seating ? What happens when your flight is delayed/ cancelled and you need to be on another flight – a FULL flight with only middle seats at the back ?? – try to get your money back then.

  9. ksandness

    May 20, 2018 at 8:54 am

    The airlines did this to themselves. Period.

    1. When Laker Airways and People Express came into existence in the early 1980s, the majors could have said, “OK, we’ll let them be McDonald’s, and we’ll be the full-service restaurant.”

    But no, they decided that they had to drive the upstarts out of business, so they did the equivalent of selling full-service meals for McDonald’s prices. I remember when the majors were offering $99 flights to Europe. That’s about $500 now, but still, a bargain price for full service across the Atlantic.

    Well, Laker and People Express fell by the wayside, but so did a lot of majors, since offering full service for bargain prices was unsustainable.

    So what did the majors do? They removed one coach class amenity after another, until some time in the mid 90s, when, after not flying for several years, I–despite not having gained either height or weight–suddenly found the seats to be narrower and with less pitch.

    2. The excuse for the huge disparity (up to ten times) between coach and business class is that most business class passengers are upgrades purchased with miles or are being paid for by companies.

    OK, so I’ve read that the airlines have more frequent flyer miles outstanding than they could ever possibly redeem. As in literal trillions of them. Whose fault is that? Which empty-headed executives decided that it would be a good idea to award miles for retail and restaurant purchases, general spending on credit cards, and hotel stays? If they had stuck to awarding miles for actual butt-in-seat trips they wouldn’t have this problem, and they wouldn’t be giving away so many free business class seats. Then they could afford to offer business class for two or three times the coach fare.

    So, two major stupid decisions on the part of the airline executives.

    The result is that coach on U.S.-flag airlines is miserable. Seats are uncomfortable for anyone who isn’t both short and thin. There is no meal service, only nasty, artificial, over-priced, buy-on-board options, and if you’re lucky, you may get an 8-oz. soft drink and three pretzels. Charging for baggage means that people bring 21″ suitcases on board and cram them into the overhead bins, which slows down the boarding process and forces people to stand in the aisles to wait for their own turn to find empty space in the overhead bins.

    “The customers want low fares above all,” sniff the airline executives.

    Well, YEAH. If an experience is going to be miserable, only an idiot would pay more than necessary, especially with the unpredictability of airfares, which can leave one person paying $200 (advance purchase) and another paying $2000 (walk-up fare) for the same wretched conditions.

    Furthermore, with the stingy vacations that Americans have and the lack of high-speed rail in this country, families that wants to take the kiddies to Disney World or to see the grandparents on the opposite coast may have no choice but to fly coach.

    Those of us who have choices are making them. I will never again attend a convention in Orlando if my only choice is one of those cattle car all-coach flights. I will drive to U.S. destinations if the distance isn’t too long and there are interesting things to see on the way, or even take Amtrak if there is even a route to my destination. If I have to fly domestically , I will search for domestic first class (and even that ain’t what it used to be). If I fly internationally, it will be on the best foreign carrier that flies to that destination, as evidenced by reviews on Seat Guru.

    I’m not going to spend 12 hours in coach on a U.S. carrier to go to Asia just because a bunch of greedy airline executives began making stupid decisions 40 years ago.

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