Will Airline Service Get Better or Worse in the Future?

With all of the shenanigans that have been happening with airlines recently I have spent a fair amount of time reading commentary from all different point of views.  The vast majority of whom have no real understanding of how the airline industry works other than getting on a plane and flying from point A to point B.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I am hardly an expert, especially when compared with a lot of other blogs out there like AirlineReporter or AirlineGuys, or AirlineGeeks, etc. but I like to think that I know at least a little more than the average Joe out there.

The specifics of the actual events have been beaten to death with practically no one changing how they feel about the issue because that is what we do in the modern world, we pick a side and stick to it refusing to even listen to what the other side has said.  So rather than continue that useless charade my mind has been drawn to topics that led to some of these events, or at least maybe influenced their occurrence, and will continue to impact the industry as a whole as we move into the future.

One of the biggest topics that I have been thinking about is the level of service that airlines currently provide, and whether that service will improve or deteriorate in the coming years.  The challenge with this topic is that there are so many factors involved it would be practically impossible to come up with an overarching answer for the entire industry.

For example, airlines in the US are significantly different from those that operate in Europe and Asia.  They simply face different challenges and opportunities by nature of the geography in which they operate along with political sensitivities, and the different wants and needs of the passengers whom they serve.

The interesting perspective that I have right now is that recently I have significantly more experience with Asian airlines rather than US-based airlines, while the majority of the commentary that I have read has been related to airlines in the states.  It has been really interesting to see how differently they operate even when it comes to serving a similar customer base in crossing the Pacific.

If you were to compare the services that airlines offer now to those offered 40 years ago, I don’t think anyone would think the service now, as a whole, is better than it was then.  However, 40 years in aviation is nearly half of the life of an industry that has developed exponentially over its lifetime.  What is interesting about that development is that while the technology in the industry continues to improve, the service as a whole has deteriorated.

So why is aviation different from so many other industries in that they continue to offer fewer services while their technology continues to improve?  Shouldn’t increased efficiency and steadily increasing traffic lead to better service and more options?

While there are numerous pieces of this puzzle that play important roles in the overall picture like increased security measures (yes I still hate TSA), I think there is one piece that has driven this decline in service more than anything else, at least in America.

Price sensitivity.

From my admittedly relatively limited experience, Americans are more price sensitive than any other region of the world I have visited when it comes to buying plane tickets.  This is not to say that Europeans and Asians don’t care how much they pay for a plane ticket, they simply don’t allow that to be almost the only factor in their decision-making process.

Maybe someone else can help me understand the actual reasoning behind it, but Asians and Europeans seem far more willing to pay a premium for added service, whereas Americans prefer to pay the absolute lowest price for a ticket, and then wonder why the service is not as good as it once was.

To be fair, there are more and more ULCCs popping up around Asia in particular, but even those airlines offer a more pleasant experience than the ones in the US.  Maybe that is just because they write me off as the stupid American that they don’t want to deal with, but in general it has been a much better experience here than in the US.

I don’t blame the airlines one bit either.  With the need to fly with such high load factors in order to remain profitable, the airlines are always looking for ways to fill empty seats, including overbooking.  The problem is, as you continue to charge less and less for a given seat, you have to find other ways to cut costs, or else that seat becomes a liability rather than a minuscule asset.

I was working on my Bachelor’s in Aviation Management in the years after 9/11 which led to many interesting discussions about how that day had affected the industry.  In that same vein, the industry has continued to adapt in the years since for a number of different reasons so what worked then may not work now.

One of the airlines we often discussed was Continental.  In the aftermath of 9/11 when many of the other airlines were slashing ticket prices, along with their services, Continental seemed to decide they could attract those customers willing to pay a little more to keep the services they were used to.  I am not talking about business travelers who are far less price sensitive, and still get all of the services in First Class, but rather those people who simply appreciated things like a hot meal.  Continental was the last airline I remember serving me a hot meal on a domestic flight for no additional charge.  It may have only been a pretty plain chicken sandwich, but it stuck with me and my perception of the airline sat above the rest.  This is an overly simplistic view of their decision-making process, but I often feel they over think many of these decisions.

Now, all of the airlines are really not that different from each other.  Sure you have outliers like Southwest not charging for checked bags, but by and large they all seem to offer the same stuff, and I don’t really see much of a change coming anytime soon.

The reason I say I don’t see much of a change coming is that there really aren’t that many more services that the airline can take away.  You already have to pay for almost everything other than your seat, and in many cases if you want a window, aisle, or even an exit row seat, you have to pay for that too.

While I personally don’t take issue with the airlines doing this, I would honestly prefer if they would just add that stuff back in and charge me an extra $20-30 for my ticket.  I am often just as price sensitive as the next guy, and the larger my family gets the more this holds true, but at the same time I appreciate a few services.  I can convince myself to pay a little extra for a few of those services when I see it as part of the ticket, but when I see it as an additional charge for some reason I almost never pull the trigger.

The perspective of passengers is an interesting dynamic of this whole discussion, because we all view it differently.  For that reason, there is no one size fits all answer for how an airline should offer its services, but only time will tell if we ever get to a point where we feel like the industry as a whole is improving their service offerings.