Can Airlines Fix Their Own Service Issues? Yes, but…

Traveling in coach is like visiting the doctor: A best case scenario is that nothing happens. You want your flight to be forgettable. It’s sad that we’ve gotten to this point, and the airlines can take credit for much of the decline in service standards. Recently, I began to think about what it would take for the airlines to fix their reputation and, more importantly, would they be willing to do so.

Where There’s A Will…

airplane seat

That doesn’t look like fun. Photo Credit:                                                                   Creative Commons

I started thinking about the topic after reading this article. United CEO Oscar Munoz, when prompted, commented on how depressing the flight experience had become.

“It’s become so stressful,” he said, “from when you leave, wherever you live, to get into traffic, to find a parking spot, to get through security.”

“Frankly,” Munoz added, “by the time you sit on one of our aircraft … you’re just pissed at the world,” and improving the flying experience won’t ultimately depend on “what coffee or cookie I give you.”


Okay, he gets it. Good. Now, is he going to do anything about it? History would suggest not. For example, look at this article from CNN Travel about the ultra-low cost carrier (ULCC) experience, which, come to think of it, doesn’t actually talk much about whether ULCCs are worth it. We all know about those types of flights. They come with super-low fares, but a lot of conditions. No free seat assignment. No complimentary carry-on bags in the overhead. $3 for a can of Coke. Etc.

Is it worth it? Lots of people seem to think so. ULCCs are growing at a double-digit rate. No matter how uncomfortable they are, people vote with their wallets, and their wallets are pushing them toward the lowest prices. The only way for the major carriers to compete is on price, meaning that fares drop to a point where nobody makes money. Not the world’s most efficient business.

United Simply Doesn’t Have to Do Anything

Here’s the problem behind Munoz’s statements: It would be nice if United gave bigger seats or made flying more comfortable. But they can’t. In the world of airline accounting, costs are measured on a “per seat mile” basis. In other words, what are the costs to fly one seat one mile? If you can cram more seats onto a plane, your average cost will go down. Improving seat space won’t do anything other than drive up costs to the airline. In a commodity business like the airlines, where one seat is as good as another, the lowest price usually wins. And, because of that, when it comes to passenger comfort, everyone loses.


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