Why are airline seats the lone products on the market that consumers are faulted for comparison shopping for the best price? Only with airlines are shoppers badgered over their choices in this oddest form of corporate victim-shaming.
Last week, I bought a half-gallon of 1 percent milk. The grocery store offered four choices, ranging from a premium brand at $3.99 to the store brand at $2.39. Since all four offered similar sell-by dates, I happily opted for the store brand. But what if later I discovered the milk was sour? Or the container had ruptured? Well, I would have asked for a refund and promptly received it. No one would tell me, “But you bought the cheap milk – what did you expect? Why didn’t you upgrade to Farmer’s Cow? You know better milk could be available, but people like you buy cheap stuff and hurt the rest of us!”
If you lease an inexpensive car, you don’t expect the brakes to fail. If you book the cheapest hotel room, you don’t expect bedbugs. So why are you to blame if you buy the cheapest airline ticket and the seat pitch gives you deep vein thrombosis, a.k.a.“economy-class syndrome”? Or the flight is delayed? Or there’s no overhead bin space? Or as happened on a Delta flight a few months ago, when a passenger realized there was feces on his seat and was told, “You can sit in your seat or you can be left behind.”
Accepted wisdom not so wise?
Inevitably, airline executives, financial analysts, regulators and even a few journalists will invoke the “Let them eat cake” defense and tell you that you got what you paid for – so shut up or pay $50 for an upgraded coach seat. This applies if customers choose less expensive airlines, such as Allegiant, Frontier or Spirit, or if they choose less expensive seats such as the basic economy service currently or soon to be offered by Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue and United. So why has it become accepted wisdom that airline passengers “choose” inferior products if they book a lower price, but it’s not true for other industries, even low-cost industries such as fast food or retail stores?
In 2014, I asked, “Do fliers expect bad service with lower fares?” That column addressed a report from consumer organization U.S. PIRG, entitled “The Unfriendly Skies,” that analyzed Department of Transportation data and concluded Spirit is the “most complained about” U.S. airline. During a five-year period, the report found, “Each year, Spirit’s passengers were about three times as likely to file a complaint as the second-place airline, and its complaints volume is trending upward over time.” Yet Spirit’s fares are listed right alongside major carriers in Orbitz and other booking sites with no warnings for uninitiated shoppers.
Last week, I heard from an old friend who just had a terrible experience on another ultra low-cost carrier, Allegiant. Although I wasn’t surprised by her horrible tale, she acknowledged she was flying on a new route and was unfamiliar with Allegiant, but she had absolutely no expectation that her trip would turn into a debacle. Yet somehow we’re to conclude she “chose” to have a terrible experience because she selected a lower fare online.
• This headline from Forbes: “Airlines are giving customers exactly what they want.”
• Or this from Vox.com: “People don’t want to pay for quality … wherever competition has reared its head in the industry, the mass market has aimed for low prices above all else.”
• Last summer, Popular Science quoted an aviation industry analyst: “Do I wish we all had 36 inches of pitch? Of course, but I’m not willing to pay for it … Most flyers agree: ‘I’ll put my knees to my chin, suffer for three hours and buy dinner when I get there,’ is the logic.”
• Even a consumer organization noted, “And much of the traveling public shows over and over again that price is their number one factor. So, when we hear yet another horror story of some airline mistake, maybe it’s time to remember, travelers get what they pay for and service suffers.”
But is that really what they’re agreeing to? It’s critical to understand a recent study found only one out of every three Americans flew at least once annually. And Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, points out that more than 50 percent of all airline passengers in the U.S. fly less than once a year. Airline executives, analysts and travel journalists make a living kicking around accepted economic concepts about a market that confuses most of its customers.
Yes, many passengers paying for their own tickets are concerned about the cost. Why shouldn’t they be? Especially since airlines have become the busy and complicated market of the corporate world, with so much complexity baked into pricing that it’s spawned a cottage industry of advice on what days and hours and minutes are best to find the lowest fares. No consumer wants to be suckered into paying too much, including infrequent flyers. Yet airline flights are the only product for which those who pay the least are routinely ridiculed.
“Many airline executives truly believe their own press about unhappy consumers driving down the quality of their flying experience because they are price sensitive,” Mitchell says. “Nonsense. That’s nothing but gaslighting. Price-sensitive consumers are very happy and loyal, for example, to Costco, a low-price leader that competes for every customer and treats its employees well. Southwest Airlines is another example.”
The industry’s tone-deafness is apparent. In November, headlines blared that United CEO Oscar Munoz claimed increased baggage fees make flying better for passengers, comments that generated a nationwide “Huh?” Now headlines are noting that Frontier suggests passengers tip their flight attendants.
Analyzing passenger choices
Last year, the Washington Post asked me if airline service had improved in the year after United’s Dr. David Dao “dragging debacle,” and I replied that progress had been “disappointingly limited.” The author concluded, “What went wrong? The answer is, well, you, the passenger. Flyers may have said in that survey that they’d avoid United, but they really kept choosing whichever airline offered the best price and itinerary. And often that was United.”
Left out of that equation is the radical consolidation that has overtaken the domestic airline industry in recent years, shrinkage that has resulted in eight major network carriers morphing into just American, Delta and United (along with Southwest and smaller airlines), and the loss of US Airways, Continental, Northwest, America West and TWA. The fact is, on many domestic routes much of the country has little choice – on airlines or on price.
There also is an ingrained media bias over this concept because so many journalists live in New York City or Washington, regions served by multiple airports and airlines, including many low-cost carriers. When a Manhattan-based editor once asked me to write an article about switching frequent-flyer programs, I asked if she really thought people in Atlanta could switch from Delta or book away from American in Charlotte or if folks in Houston can ignore United.
In my milk analogy above, some critics might claim it’s unfair, because milk is a commodity. But does anyone truly believe these days that airline seats aren’t commoditized as well? And that too is not the fault of consumers. The industry itself commoditized its own products when it initiated codesharing, which tells every consumer buying a seat from Carrier A and flying on Carrier B that airlines are no different than mass transit systems. Their offerings are interchangeable. Yet no one could argue that Star Alliance partners United Airlines and Singapore Airlines provide the same product.
It’s a given consumers intrinsically grasp that better products are priced more expensively. At Chevrolet.com, no shopper could possibly not realize there are a ton of differences between a Spark starting at $13,220 and a Corvette ZR1 starting at $123,000. But those differences manifest in engineering, horsepower, performance, comfort, power assists, audio gizmos and dozens of optional bells and whistles. No one would accept that a cheaper car didn’t have working airbags or suffered a faulty transmission or was prone to stalling. And no one would criticize the owner by saying, “What did you expect when you bought a subcompact? That it would start up?”
Yet that’s what airlines have done with basic economy by continually stripping away standard features of a product so that customers are conditioned to pay more for what once was included in the price. And make no mistake – as many of us have noted, basic economy is all about upselling customers to pay for more expensive seats.
The automotive equivalent of basic economy would be selling new cars without seats or tires or windshields, so that salespeople could steer consumers toward the “standard” vehicles. So it’s worth noting that just recently Southwest, which for years has generated fewer consumer complaints than the Big Three, once again told investors it would not introduce a basic economy product. In November the carrier even tweeted: “Basic Economy? How about some Basic Compassion?” Two years ago, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said, “There is a huge value in offering all of our customers – 100% of them – a great product. We like to say at Southwest, there is no second class.”
Clearly this isn’t the case at some airlines, where there are third and fourth classes as well. Just because many passengers want to pay less doesn’t mean they asked for tight seats and poor service. Sour milk is sour milk – at any price. So never let the airfare determine if you should defer fighting for your passenger rights or accept being treated unfairly.
Talk to us
What are your experiences? Do you feel airlines are correct in believing you’re concerned primarily about fares, so accepting tighter seats and less service is part of the bargain? Please let us know and we may use your comments in an upcoming column.
Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an email at email@example.com. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.
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