The industry is so concerned with extracting the maximum amount per customer, they forget that it's more important to grow their customer base.
That said, I've been flying almost exclusively Virgin (America/Atlantic) for the last year or two, and they are definitely a cut above. Virgin America has an entire fleet of brand new planes, comfortable seats, personal in-flight entertainment and wifi, and great staff. Virgin Atlantic has Premium Economy, which is so worth the extra few hundred dollars (as opposed to the 2x for business) for flights to Europe. Here, at least, I can justify the price difference, at least vis-a-vis competing airlines.
Last year, there was a Wakefield/Wi-Fi Alliance study that found 76% of travelers would choose an airline based on wi-fi availability. (http://www.wi-fi.org/news_articles.php?f=media_news&news...) A number which, I can only imagine, has been increasing over time. And, as we've seen (re: Starbucks) there's a big difference between wi-fi and free wi-fi. As far as I can tell skimming a couple searches, there doesn't seem to be any line that offers free wifi... yet.
It seems like there's a coming sea-change, however. The going theory is that free wi-fi is going to be a standard check-box item by the middle of next year - with many assuming Virgin and SWA will likely be leading the way.
On a related note, I fly pretty much exclusively Southwest. I took my first flight at just over a week old and have flown pretty regularly ever since. About 6-7 years ago, I made the change to flying SWA whenever possible and haven't looked back. Last time I flew to SF, it took two different flights with a transfer in between - and I got a free drink on both.
I'd imagine Wi-Fi Alliance might have some biases here.
Since in-flight wifi is just a satellite connection, I'm sure the overall available bandwidth is fairly limited. Charging for wifi is a good middle ground for airlines as a way to make a few extra dollars but also to keep usage to a level that the uplink can handle.
Are their any airlines that currently offer free wifi? I know that SWA did during their testing phase a while back (which only consisted of 3-4 equipped planes) but they eventually started charging for it like everyone else.
And yes the wifi alliance has some biases, but Wakefield (http://www.wakefieldresearch.com/) is an independent research firm.
That's a good point, though about charging in order to throttle bandwidth concerns. But that comes at a potentially high cost in public perception points. All it takes is one airline to say "Everyone should have free wifi, so now we do!" and there will be a big jump in people complaining about having to pay for it.
"So why is air travel, among the most differentiated experiences we have in the normal course of life, purchased by so many people as a commodity?"
So not true. A restaurant is a much more differentiated experience and also a "perishable" one that people are willing to pay a premium for. JetBlue has TV's and SouthWest has free luggage but you can't pick your seat -- what other differences are there between airlines?
I you think you hit the nail on the head with the airlines destruction of any price/value correlation. The table next to me might be getting a free appetizer or desert but they are not going to be paying 1/5 or 5x as much as I am.
Yes but a meal at a restaurant is the primary experience. People are deliberately seeking a good one as eating a fine meal is their intent. Flying an airplane is just a means to an end. An annoyance really. And in that mind set most people aren't going to care, myself included.
For instance, I can fly from LAX to Sydney for, say, one thousand dollars in economy, or (goes to check fares) sixteen thousand dollars in First Class. That's a thirteen-hour flight, so you're paying more than a thousand dollars an hour for whatever extra pleasure you get by sitting in a nicer seat, eating a nicer meal, and being brought drinks by a prettier stewardess.
Alternatively, I could eat at the best restaurant in town for $200 and then go and sleep in a fabulous hotel room for $500. That's a far better pleasure-quantum-per-dollar ratio than anything you can get in the air.
I've never tried first class, but I'm sure it'd be much easier to sleep up there, what with the lie-flat beds and all.
Several airlines now are doing flat beds in Business and private cabins in First.
"We need you to fly to <FarFarAway>, urgently!"
"OK I'm not going then"
"Business class it is then!"
That said, it did get me interested in a trans-Pacific airline, flying solely between Sydney-Melbourne-Auckland to LAX-SFO-whatever. Seems like it could be done much better for us who can't afford better tickets.
I have never had a flight on one of these that was nicer than a good LCC (southwestern/Westjet) - even when you aren't outsourced to some rebadged regional jet minor outfit.
"Virgin America has an entire fleet of brand new planes, comfortable seats, personal in-flight entertainment and wifi, and great staff."
Note that unlike other airlines, Virgin has tied together that correlation between price and value. Virgin is selling predictability. You pay more, and ALL of their flights are awesome (because they're a brand new airline? Only time will tell...)
Wait, if people pay such different prices for the same product, doesn't that mean that it's not a commodity?
I think there's a certain enjoyment threshold below which something becomes "unpleasant," and moving from one state below that threshold to another state also below that threshold isn't as valuable as a similar state shift would be if the initial state happened to be above that threshold.
Why aren't there carriers that try and create a comfortable and enjoyable flight experience? The article spent a great deal of time explaining that people pay on two factors, price and schedule. Attempting to differentiate on comfort doesn't win you more customers, therefore, the carriers aren't incented to create a comfortable flight experience.
I've certainly had some really outstanding flight experiences, usually when being upgraded.
But, I think I see what you are getting at - we're so far beyond that point right now, that subtle increases in comfort won't register - you need a quantum leap - something akin to moving into first class, to really capture people's imagination.
This is really the only significant differential I've ever had in flying experience, on AirTran/JetBlue/Southwest/Delta/United: Whether or not the person in front of me chooses to recline their seat.
If you're not already aware, seats that have their backs to an exit row never recline. So, your best bet (until an airline offers you your wish) would be either an exit-row seat or a bulkhead seat.
And if you don't want to pay the extra fee usually charged, immediately go to the counter and request it. Usually there are exit-row seats that nobody paid for and they'll give it to you.
A tip for flying Southwest (who doesn't assign seats): Don't be scared to hop into one of the exit row seats, they are fair game like all other seats. I notice that a lot of people will walk right by them (who are traveling alone and could obviously use the extra leg room) just because there is a flight attendant standing in the row. Just ask if you can slide in, they are just standing there to get out of the way waiting for the rows to fill up so they can give the exit-row speech.
The other option, of course, is to simply not fly. For the price of an extra laptop battery, a bus (or train or boat) ticket, and optionally some sort of network connectivity, I can get where I'm going slowly but comfortably and productively. It has not quite reached the point where this is superior to flying, but it's moving in that direction.
I personally found the experience like a bad sci-fi nightmare but it does seem they are trying for what some people might enjoy.
But yeah, in economy class there's only so much that can be done to make the flight more enjoyable without giving people more room, and getting a little more room turns out to cost more than most people are willing to pay. Still, I'll take a Virgin America flight over an American Airlines one any day.
I don't think it turns out this way at all, since I don't recall ever having the option of paying for more room (and nothing else). The physical seat type always seems to be bundled with something else, such as an upgraded meal.
I'd be curious as to how much of the cost of the flight is weight versus space. I don't doubt that it leans heavily toward space, if a European airline is considering a sort of standing "seat." However, the ratio would help reveal what an extra inch of seatch pitch (and/or width) would actually cost.
Many airlines now have a "premium economy" section on international flights which offers just this. Maybe some of them have minor extra features too (like, I think I got a free drink before takeoff, and I certainly got better service, the one time I got upgraded to Premium Economy) but basically it's just the extra legroom. I'd probably pay for it on long flights if I were just a little bit richer.
On my next long trip (from Minneapolis to Italy), I chose to spend about double for business class, because the prospect of 10 hours flying in economy literally terrifies me.
When I fly to Taiwan I make a point of traveling on Eva (a Taiwanese airline) which has a class between economy & business (like Virgin). It's well worth the extra cost for a 12 hour flight.
I would gladly pay a premium for exit row or galley seats with more legroom. I still don't understand why airlines don't consistently sell these seats in advance.
In years when I'm flying a lot, I always stick with the same airline. Getting elite status gives you free upgrades and first crack at some of the more comfortable seats.
All of which is to say that price & schedule are not really my #1 considerations.
They have a lot of direct flights. From Toronto-Taipei that means the difference between a 20+ hour flight and having to get off the plane and a 15 hour flight. They specifically offer many direct flights.
Their planes are new, spacious and have high quality entertainment systems.
They have the premium class you mention with larger seats.
They have these infant sections where a soft crib hangs off the wall. That was amazing. I had two babies in the rows right in front of me and I didn't hear a single noise from them the entire flight. They easily slept and then during turbulence they were standing up playing with toys.
Anyways, a few airlines can go the extra mile and make me specifically choose them. But for the majority of flights, I am going completely on cost.
I think this shows that the original article is incorrect in its assumption that given more product differentiation people will chose an alternate airline. If more people were willing to pay for extra legroom then more airlines would offer these "economy plus" sections.
For me, I'll stick to flying one airline, keeping my elite status which almost always guarantees me an upgrade to first class.
It's one of those things where being polite and directly asking for something can go a long way.
Northwest would sell the exit row seats in advance, but unless you had elite status, you could only purchase them 24 hours in advance. This was great when I had elite status, but sucked otherwise.
I would gladly pay $100+ for exit row if I could get it when I book my ticket.
You'll say that this is for better security. It's not an effective way to achieve better security. In Europe, queues are shorter and people only have to remove their shoes when there's a reason for it. Europe has not exploded yet - put it down to behavioral profiling, making good use of extant security measures and (for the most part) having enough personnel to avoid the building up of queues.
To pick the restaurant analogy, it has the same effect on the airlines as it would for a restaurant to have pseudo-policemen sit in front of their door and bully everyone, building up a long queue.
I doubt many here on HN would say that.
It makes for better theater perhaps, but, really, it's just a way to bolster that theater industry. Personally, I don't think the feds are very good at entertaining.
It's certainly made flying between Southern California and the Bay Area take long enough that driving doesn't seem as preposterous an alternative, especially for a last-minute trip.
High-speed rail, with a 3-hour travel time would even be comparable, until, of course, somebody tries to bring exploding shoes on board or realizes that downtown LA isn't likely to host a convenient car rental facility any time soon.
Train was patrolled by assault rifle-armed guards in bullet-proof vests, some had dogs. I still trying to imagine what is the threat profile they were trying to respond to.
As for the bombing threat: bad guys don't need to be on the train to bomb the train. Also, unlike commuter train or subway it's a "low people-density" train.
But it does attempt to address some basic realities: the most attractive place to cause damage is at the incoming station, where a crowd will be waiting for the train; getting a parcel onto the train will require passing armed police/troops (and who knows what else? dogs? electronic detectors? the uncertainty is meant to erode a terrorist's confidence); there's a reasonable chance a bomb would be carried by a human, given a) the demonstrated preference for suicide bombings among Islamic fundamentalists and b) the relatively low participation by Islamic countries in winter sports, reducing the probability of a would-be martyr inadvertently blowing up co-religionists.
In a nutshell, the sight of heavily armed guards is, sadly, meant to look familiar and imposing to potential terrorists - because many Middle Eastern countries have paramilitary-type law enforcement. Polite and discreet security (eg the US secret service guys in their suits, or friendly-looking beat cops) wouldn't make a terrorist feel especially nervous - the same way that kids don't take mall cops very seriously because they don't have guns or tasers.
* When I go downtown, the subway station restrooms are still locked with increasingly faded stickers on them saying 'closed for security reasons due to September 11 attack'. The 10 year anniversary of that event will be a sad one, but at the same time a decade seems to be the difference between past and present for most people. So my hunch is that after it passes, there will be a lot of questioning along the lines of '10 years on, do we still need this?'
In that light, and with an election the following year, the question of budgets will also arise. the Department of Homeland Security costs about $56 billion/year. For comparison, the Department of Justice (including the FBI, DEA, and all the other law enforcement agencies) costs less than half that amount. The entire Federal court system costs under $7 billion/year. So I think a reassessment of our security strategy is on the horizon.
 With a highly variable border crossing time if not all passengers hold a NEXUS card
Travel time is 4 hours (driving is 2 hours). Border check is in Vacouver, so we just rushed around slowly walking people not to get stuck in line.
In general it makes more sense to drive than to take this train. We took it because we were going to Olympic Games and we were afraid that border wait time will be unpredictable (it turned out it was completely ok on that day, but we already had the tickets) and for sightseeing reasons. It was also refreshing not to worry about parking and to use public transportation, which is quite usable in Vancouver (compared to Seattle, for example)
My dream airline would be one where I could be dropped off on the tarmack, hop on the next plane that is taking off (think bus stop) and be on my way. No getting there three hours in advance.
Still doesn't help that at the end of the day airports are typically not at your destination. You have to first travel to the airport and once at your flights destination you still have to travel to your final destination.
Most of those things exist in airline lounges.
"My dream airline would be one where I could be dropped off on the tarmack, hop on the next plane that is taking off (think bus stop) and be on my way. No getting there three hours in advance."
That exists. They're called charter flights.
"Still doesn't help that at the end of the day airports are typically not at your destination."
Charter flights for that, too. You can use smaller airports that are likely close to your destination.
So all those things already exist. It's just that they're really expensive. So really the dream is to have first class lounges and charter flights available cheaply and for the masses. That's probably never going to happen, because such things really do cost a lot of money to run and because then there would be even less differentiation for the expensive tickets.
So, like a bouncer at a club?
If you are flying something like once per decade flying might feel like an adventure in its own right and you may be willing to splurge a bit.
But the more often you need to fly between A and B, the more similar it becomes to taking the bus, subway or a taxi, all of which already are commodities.
I expect there is room for more "exclusive" experiences at a higher price, just like there is for groceries. Or as with limousine rental vs taxi.
But fundamentally it's just transport - I'm flying because I need to get somewhere else quickly. If I were traveling for the experience I would probably go by motorcycle, train or boat instead.
The fact that we travel more frequently.
To put that into perspective... I used to fly a lot. A weekend trip across country would not have been an unusual thing for me. My wife and I flew to Japan several times a year to visit family... we just don't do that anymore.
Now I'll fly on business if I have to. but that's pretty much it.
So do I. I never found flying particularly pleasant, whether economy or business class, and after a decade of frequent business flying I pick other alternatives (including staying at home) whenever I can.
But the US travel statistics
seems to say that "people" still fly more - 350 bill. passenger miles in 1990, 530 bill. in 2000, 583 in 2008. Although it's down a bit from the peak years 2006-2007.
The chart sheet has a graph of total miles traveled. Compare to US population:
If Google Docs can take an arbitrary page, figure out what the data is and slurp it into a spreadsheet, then there are some very interesting kinds of data mashups to make!
However, you can just cut-and-paste a traditional HTML table into Google Docs, and in most cases, it works exactly as you'd expect. Automating that is left as an exercise to the reader. :)
The post was written from the perspective of the flyer also being the purchaser (either leisure or small business travel) but when tickets are purchased for you, or you have to purchase within a financial policy all that it comes down to is price (and to some extent, schedule).
The CFO doesn't care whether AirlineX has more comfortable seats than ArlineZ and isn't going to authorize purchases because of it.
Not in my case.
1. Not an airline on my bad_list
E.g. I will not fly Air India, regardless of the price/schedule.
Keep playing around with #2 and #3 but do not screw up so much that you get on #1 or else I will boycott you for life.
Also when #2 and #3 are same, I have #4 - Airlines I like (JetBlue, SouthWest etc.).
Off topic but relevant: I always check out my plane through seatguru.com before I buy the tickets. Definitely helps maximize my comfort at no additional cost.
I am open to paying a premium for a premium experience. Virgin are one airline that really "gets it", they won't be the cheapest on any of their routes, but they won't be that much more expensive, and it'll be fun, and when things do go hatstand they'll go the extra mile. If they do my route, I don't even look at another airline.
Flying between London and Dublin, I pretty much only have Aer Lingus and Ryanair to choose between. The difference in experience is like the difference between Requiem for a Dream and Amelie.
If I got a train from London to Holyhead, then a ferry to Dublin, it's 8h 30m and about £40 and then I'm left in Dublin port to find a way home with my luggage. Transport within Dublin is pretty crappy so we avoid it when we're over there as we are normally running around visiting family and friends. So it's slightly cheaper but still half a day's travelling and a bit hassle once you arrive.
We fly and pick up a car at the airport - much shorter journey, much cheaper than a ferry, probably not that much difference in price from the train but easy to do and we can pretty much relax (aside from airport security) rather than drive for half a day.
Sure, flying is probably still more expensive (though gas alone for the drive is probably at least $100), but I find it worth the added convenience.
If you allow for islands you are probably looking at more than a day (e.g. starting in the Shetlands).
Smart train operators like Eurostar realize that they are virtually airlines and behave as such.
While we're at it, you don't have any contact info in your profile, so I'll ask here--what made you assume I was Canadian and not American? :)
I dunno, based on my own friends, long roadtrips seem to be more of a Canadian thing, Americans seem to fly more :-) When I lived in the US catching the Delta service between Boston and NYC was "normal", that's only what, 3 hrs drive?
Right now I live 5 hours of driving away from the largest major city. Most of the American West is like that. 8 hours? I do that twice a month. People in built up areas on the East Coast see longer distances differently because a long distance actually gets you across three or four states, not less than one like it is out here.
Prefer to when possible fly, JetBlue, Southwest and Alaskan Air if the price is drastically all over the board.
What always gets me is that long haul flights seem to have less room than domestic flights or the regionals. The most uncomfortable flight I've ever had was from ATL -> Tokyo because the seats were so close together. I ended up spending hours just sitting in the galley with the flight attendants.
Whenever possible (i.e., heading westward, domestic US) I fly Frontier. For other destinations, US Airways is my preferred option, mostly because their hub -- Charlotte -- is actually a rather nice and not-too-crowded airport.
There were no people to talk to at my original airport, so I had to leave the "secure" area, go back to the ticket counter and wait in line for the one Delta employee to assist.
Sabena were on mine (such a bad experience, never again) until they went bankrupt. Ryanair are at the top of my no-fly list.
I believe my point of view stems from the happiness of being able to travel around the world so cheaply (even free with airline miles). This wasn't even possible until modern times and it is easy to take for granted.
For example, something I've noticed recently: the SFO to NYC red-eye will be cheaper than the evening flights up until about 3-5 weeks before the day of travel. Then, the red-eye will suddenly jump to almost double the price of the other tickets.
All I can figure is that more than 3-5 weeks out, most of the people buying tickets are tourists, and tourists tend to not like taking red-eyes. Once you get inside the 3-5 week window, that buying pattern switches to primarily business travelers. For a business traveler, the red-eye means still getting in a full day of work before leaving, so they tend to favor that schedule.
The fact that the price fluctuates so rapidly, and depends more on the buying patterns of other consumers than on the product itself, makes plane tickets look an awful lot like a futures market! And you know what else is sold on futures markets?
The only thing I'd pay extra for is an exit row seat and I'm a special case (most people are not 6'5").
IMO, most of the airlines don't want employees or to control a brand they just want to sell tickets.
When the majors play at being LCC by outsourcing everything to outfits with a single regional jet it's terrible.
I remember looking between Jet Blue and Continental for a flight to NYC recently. I had a great time with Jet Blue because they had TVs on board and I enjoyed the free wifi in their terminal when returning. But, price-wise Jet Blue would be $20 more than Continental. For me, the extra $20 I save could be used to eat out a couple more times in NYC so it was easy to forgo the in flight convenience for what I weighed as the greater use of my money.
I think that also, the capital intensive nature of the business which yields low returns on investment, in the context of being in a highly regulated industry with unionized employees makes risk taking pretty limited. So, most of the players just copy each other which also helps re-enforce the commoditized product that they produce.
Then again, I'm not the target audience of this article. I fly rarely, and an airplane ticket represents a very sizable chunk of my income. Because of that, I will put up with a poor experience, and this is why I am not prepared to spend $10 more for the plane that gives the better 'experience'.
If I wanted to understand, I'd look at what % of the travellers are frequent flyers (with a standardized definition of "frequent flier" of course), the level of income (differentiated between frequent flyers and other as-yet-to-be-determined categories, maybe holiday trips, business trips, family trips, etc.).
Not to mention there might be some irrational decisions or decisions not directly attributable to the customer.
My "instinct" is that the airline managers have it right: price is #1, and schedule is #2 - like for silverstorm, a flight is easily several months' worth of income for me, and I don't have much flexibility with my holidays OR business trips.
In fact, I believe there are statistics out there that contradict the article's suggestion that there aren't significant and consistent differences between airlines.
I don't know if this particular website is unbiased. But at least in my limited experience, the Japanese companies (JAL and ANA) and Swiss Air are much better than American Airlines, Continental and Canadian.
A quick glance at the reviews section of the same site will show plenty of low ratings for "top" airlines and good ratings even for the likes of Ryanair (an airline that actively seeks negative publicity for its customer care in order to create the perception its tickets are cheaper than they actually are).
I think its fair to say that few people fly for the intrinsic pleasure of being strapped into a seat in a narow metal tube, so "premium" airlines are mostly about minimising the displeasure. Other than seat comfort, arguably the main factors that can make a journey deeply unpleasant are largely uncorrelated with price. Unpleasant neighbours can happen anywhere, and many LCCs are statistically more likely to depart on time than their higher priced competition (their business model depends on it and they avoid busy hub airports)
I considered creating an airline guide type site but shelved it because I'm just not convinced the consumer interest is there. Now if someone could make the process of booking _other_ aspects of a holiday more engaging and differentiated (forget price comparisons, wildly disparate customer reviews and grainy pictures in favour of something engaging, social and interactive) I think they'd make a mint.
Myself, I always fly American, not because the coach experience is any better but because I've got about a one-in-four chance of getting upgraded to business class. Just a couple of days ago I got upgraded on my redeye back from SFO - well worth the $35 or so extra I paid for the seat vs. the equivalent flight on a competing airline. Slept like a baby, and I certainly couldn't have done that back in steerage.
But I have a solution to fix all the problems (well, it would still be a commodity...): When you get to the airport, someone takes your ticket and gasses you. You wake up in your destination (or occasionally a totally random place, but that would still be better than what it's like now. Especially since you slept through it). That would solve everyone's problem. Who cares about seats, you can just make bays to stack the sleeping people in. You can carry more people. You can have a vastly smaller staff, pretty much just a pilot and a loading/unloading crew. For security you can do any check you need to but most will be unnecessary since the people wont be conscious.