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How we buy plane tickets and why it's ruining air travel (flightcaster.com)
134 points by jaf12duke on July 26, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 122 comments

How do you expect consumers to view flying as anything but a commodity when I can pay 2x more then the customer sitting next to me? The airlines, with their byzantine and constantly shifting prices, have totally ruined any correlation between 'price' and 'value'. It's completely arbitrary from the point of view of the consumer. I might end up an old plane with a horrible seating configuration, or a brand new plane with plenty of legroom and in-flight entertainment. All on the same airline, between the same cities. My experience has no correlation with the price I'm paying, unless I decide to pony up for business class. Even then, among business class, there's a big difference among airlines.

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.

+1 for Virgin. I've never flown (I live in Chicago and they don't hit O'Hare) but I've heard almost exclusively good things. They are doing exactly what needs to be done in these giant, somewhat stagnant industries - introducing a brand with a customer-centric model, offering a "premium" service. Of course, in the world of air travel, it takes surprisingly little to distinguish yourself from the notoriously horrendous experience of dealing with other major lines.

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.

Last year, there was a Wakefield/Wi-Fi Alliance study that found 76% of travelers would choose an airline based on wi-fi availability.

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.

The in-flight WiFi on Virgin America (and most domestic carriers as far as I know) is a cellular based system, not satellite.


Very interesting. Even with a cellular based system, I'm sure there isn't too much bandwidth available but much more than with a satellite connection I'd imagine.

Yeah, IIRC Delta had free wifi while they were testing it and Virgin's was free during the holiday season.

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.

I flew from Sacramento to Miami 2 weeks ago with Delta and they had complimentary wifi.

TANSTAAFL, or free wireless. Any time something is being offered for "free" you can be sure those that aren't using it are being ripped off for the benefit of those who are.

This is true, of course. But that doesn't mean the public won't buy the free wifi claim, and prefer that airline over the others.

From the article:

"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.

> 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.

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.

Also, as soon as you start treating air travel as an experience to be enjoyed rather than tolerated, it quickly becomes apparent that it's really bad value compared to ground-based enjoyable experiences.

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.

Indeed, for the price of a trans-Pacific first class ticket, you could stay in a hotel room designed to look like a first class cabin, hire a comely young lady to bring you (and only you) all the cranberry juice you could drink in 16 hours, eat the best meal in town, get to pick your own movie, and have your doctor prescribe you something so that you spend the next actual plane flight unconscious.

Of all the fantasies I've ever heard which involve a hotel room, a comely young lady, fifteen thousand dollars and all-you-can-drink cranberry juice, that's the dullest, I'm sorry.

That's why I think there should be premium airlines which perform aerobatic maneuvers occasionally throughout the flight, because that would be entertaining. Bigger seats and better food? These people just don't know how to create an enjoyable experience inside an airplane.

Hardly anyone pays out-of-pocket for first-class tickets. I suspect 90% of premium cabin passengers are flying on their company's dime, have been upgraded, are using awards, or are non-revenue passengers. The few who pay their own way skew toward the investment banker side of things.

If a company is flying someone from A to B to negotiate a hundred million dollar deal, $10,000 for an airline ticket that ensures they can work on the flight and arrive fully refreshed and prepared is absolutely worth it. And that fare also to a certain extent subsidizes the people in Economy. I don't see why anyone would have a problem with it.

It's only worth it if it makes a difference in performance. That's far from established fact.

You point is analogous to the idea of sales and marketing in start-up culture. Essentially how do you prove that this multimillion dollar deal was the result of the person being "fresh" rather than the product itself etc. As far as I know if you're being flown out as a sales rep already, you have to be an utter asshole for the customer to change his mind. The product/engineering teams are the ones that actually have to impress them. In all honesty when a company through a rep wine and dines a client, the rep wine and dines themselves.

On an overnight flight? Huge difference in performance, at least if you're me. I can't sleep at all in economy, which if you're flying 20+ hours is a really big problem.

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.

It's the whole business class package. Fast track through security, a quiet lounge where you can work, enough carry-on that you never need to check a bag, etc etc. Plus you get to only be around frequent flyers, so no hassle with people who don't know that they should take their keys out of their pockets BEFORE reaching security...

Several airlines now are doing flat beds in Business and private cabins in First.

earplugs, sleep mask, ambien.

Conversation like this are not unknown:

"We need you to fly to <FarFarAway>, urgently!"

"Business class?"


"OK I'm not going then"

"Business class it is then!"

It's fine to suffer in coach during international flights if you're a vacationer who only takes one or two long trips per year - totally different if you're a frequent flyer. I'd be extremely reluctant to take any job that required me to fly international coach regularly.

That demonstrates a sense of entitlement. I'm looking for some evidence that flying business class improves performance on arrival compared to economy. Totally different things.

They're also different. I flew from Perth to basically Washington DC about a month ago, including a 13ish hour flight from Sydney to LA, in economy, and I can tell you it's absolutely horrendous. Maybe it's just me but it was entirely unbearable, aside from boredom and not having enough leg room. The economy plus or whatever is seeming like a necessity almost, especially when you include a 13hr flight with another 5 hours either side.

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 loved the comment about the "premium network carriers American, United, Delta, etc."

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.

Note that in your example, you nicely added to your original point:

"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...)

> How do you expect consumers to view flying as anything but a commodity when I can pay 2x more then the customer sitting next to me?

Wait, if people pay such different prices for the same product, doesn't that mean that it's not a commodity?

No, a commodity is something you purchase based solely on price without regard for any differentiating factors related to provider. Think crude oil. Oil's price goes up, oil's price goes down, but ultimately you're only thinking about the price, not whether that oil comes from one large drilling conglomerate or the next. Oil is oil, and a plane ticket is a plane ticket.

The word you're looking for is "Fungible". One barrel of fuel oil is the same as every other barrel of fuel oil.

One thing I think that this analysis misses is the fact that, for most people, you're not going to enjoy the flight no matter what. At that point most people shift from "maximize enjoyment" mode, where paying more for something better is more rational, to "minimize costs mode." If I'm going to spend 5 hours being uncomfortable whether I spend $300 or $500, what's the point in paying more?

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.

"you're not going to enjoy the flight no matter what."

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.

They could start by putting seats in the plane that do not recline. I'd easily pay an extra $20 per ticket to not place my knees at the mercy of whatever random person happens to sit in front of me, and it should actually be cheaper for the airline.

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.

Just another illustration of how vastly different flying experiences can be on the exact same airline.

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.

At 6'3", this is the difference between a miserable and pleasant flying experience.

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.

I feel your pain, I'm 6'4".

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.

I spent a flight across the Atlantic with my knees up & between seats, and my feet off the floor, because I'm 6'2". Utterly ridiculous. In the opposite direction, I had an exit row seat, but I now check seat distance religiously.

Yeah, I'd thought of this. Unfortunately, the exit row is not normally an option for physical reasons (I often travel with someone who could not do what's needed if there is a problem), and I've only once been so lucky as to get a bulkhead seat.

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.

Move to Europe or Japan. We have trains.

AllegiantAir does this. At 6'2" I actually had enough legroom too, because non-reclining seats are thinner than the reclining seats. Not only do non-reclining seats weigh about 10-20lbs less (if I remember correctly) they are indeed cheaper. For an airline--the weight alone is a big deal.

You can pay $40 for an "Extra Leg Room" seat on JetBlue.

Or just choose the seat at the emergency exit, they have more leg room so that people can easily get through when the plane crashes.

The situation with emergency exit seats varies from airline to airline. Many won't let you reserve one in advance, or only allow preferred or full-fare customers to reserve. JetBlue (once again) charges $40 if you want to reserve one.

Well, JetBlue kind of does this already. You get more leg room and infinite snacks/drinks on every flight. They also have live television for free, in flight.

Virgin America has leather seats, AC plugs in every seat, $12 wifi, decent meals for $10 and lots of TV channels with LCD screens at every seat that go on all by themselves. They still packed us in like a sardines but, hey, I could have bought business class for an extra $100 at the gate (I bought the meal and used the plug, though my laptop was a bit big for the space).

I personally found the experience like a bad sci-fi nightmare but it does seem they are trying for what some people might enjoy.

I've flown Virgin America's business (I think they call it first) class when it was only a $60 upgrade (SFO to LAS, not a long flight) and it was the only truly enjoyable flight I've had, at least since I was a kid. But I probably wouldn't do it again, even at sixty bucks, because heck, sitting in a comfortable chair isn't that fantastic. I can do it at home for free. And while I got a free glass of MacAllan 12-year, they still didn't give me anything to eat except a bag of chips.

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.

At 6'2" I've always paid for more room when given the chance and a reasonable price. Last time it was offered at checkin I think it was $35 each way for 6-7" of extra room. It doesn't sound like a lot, but it makes a huge deal.

getting a little more room turns out to cost more than most people are willing to pay

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.

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.

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.

Why cant a flight be like a bar with a pool table and darts or at least fps fragfests on lan?

Three words: "flying cue balls" (As soon as you hit turbulence)

I'm 6'7" (200 cm), so being stuck in a typical economy class seat is extremely uncomfortable for me.

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.

EVA is an example of an airline that I would specifically choose due to quality, where I normally optimize based on price because I sleep the entire flight.

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.

Both United and Jetblue have extra legroom economy sections available for purchase by anyone well in advance.

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.

I haven't flown too many different airlines recently but some do sell exit-row seats in advance and usually don't sell them all so asking as soon as you get to the gate can get one for free.

It's one of those things where being polite and directly asking for something can go a long way.

Delta, which has most of the gates in Minneapolis, does not sell exit row in advance, and I wouldn't count on getting it when I'm going to be flying for 10 hours to Italy.

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.

I think you might be the definition of an OUTLIER at 6 foot 7 :)

Bah! I am the future of humanity. All you short people just need to catch up.

Nah. Well fed ancients were about 6ft tall. Unless you're extrapolating from millions of years ago...

One thing that always bugged me about air travel in the US is the time you spend on the ground, standing in queues, pulling your shoes off, putting them back on again.

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.

You'll say that this is for better security.

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.

This winter I took train from Seattle to Vancouver, BC. There was a security check before boarding the train, but it was much much faster than airport.

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.

A train bombing can be massively destructive, as has happened in London and Madrid. You mention that you were traveling to visit the winter Olympics: imagine the effect of a mass casualty attack close to the venue, in a town full of foreign visitors. Besides the immediate loss of life and panic, the resulting investigation would be difficult and almost certainly involve a large number of mistaken arrests, to say nothing of the global publicity which most extremists crave.

I don't know if this was standard security or it was there for the Olympics, I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out either way. It was just surprising since they were relatively heavily armed.

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.

It's not that I think this security theater is so logical or effective. I think it's often a waste of money and resent the ubiquitous impositions it creates, although I think this may change somewhat after next year.*

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.

Yes but it's hard to see how machine guns prevent somebody having left a 'package' under seat. It's like how after 911 there were tanks at Heathrow airport - in case of hijacker on a plane? Or in case the hijackers decide to attack the airport with a wave of T32 ?

How long did the trip end up taking, and how much did it cost? I'm curious if there's much, if any, time savings versus driving[1].

[1] With a highly variable border crossing time if not all passengers hold a NEXUS card

The cost was around $80 for business class which is something like $10 more expensive than regular.

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)

More often than not I spend more time at the airport than on the plane. Treat me like a human. Have a zillion power ports. Have free wifi. Have desks to sit at. Spare computers ala libraries. Have restaurants with food that isn't so horrible. How about couches or rocking chairs? How about a library? How about an video game demo station? Mini museum pieces that change every few months. art to look at? Music listening station?

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.

" Treat me like a human. Have a zillion power ports. Have free wifi. Have desks to sit at. Spare computers ala libraries. Have restaurants with food that isn't so horrible. How about couches or rocking chairs? How about a library? ..."

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.

> for a restaurant to have pseudo-policemen sit in front of their door and bully everyone, building up a long queue.

So, like a bouncer at a club?

Except you can't bribe the TSA, nor are they influenced by how beautiful or "cool" you are.

I'd add a fourth factor: The fact that we travel more frequently.

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.
I travel far less often now than a few years ago. I feel the airports today are so flier hostile that I would rather just stay home. My last few vacations were spent within driving distance of my home. Even though I could easily afford the airfare.

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.

> I travel far FAR less often now than a few years ago.

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 http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_stat... 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.

I'm a visual kind of guy, so I pulled those travel stats into Google Docs:


The chart sheet has a graph of total miles traveled. Compare to US population:


How did you pull those stats into Google Docs? It was automated, right?

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!

Sadly, no: I just imported the excel spreadsheet that's on the page j-g-faustus linked to. :)

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. :)

Interesting post, but what was missed is that corporate travel accounts for a large degree of airline ticket spend - and those values (price and schedule) are that BigCo business cares about.

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.

Very true, although most companies that have corporate contracts do so for multiple major airlines, so there still is choice. Also, corporate contracts have much more influence for international travel, they aren't nearly as meaningful for domestic travel.

> The first is price, the second is schedule. Everything else is a distant third.

Not in my case.

1. Not an airline on my bad_list 2. Price 3. Schedule

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.

Price is a variable, but it's not a major one for me, and I don't want it to be. In a world where you compete on price, all airlines are Ryanair, all supermarkets are Lidl, all TV is reality TV, all music is chart pop, all clothes are polyester... Kinda the point of money is not just to have it, but to spend it on the goods and services that enable the lifestyle you want to live.

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.

Exactly. I consider my purchases as my investment in the kind of market I want. Small though my purchases usually are, it's all I've got to use for influence. This is why I will never fly Ryanair when there is another choice that isn't hundreds more in price... and if it is, I probably will just go somewhere else.

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.

London to Dublin is an 8-10 hour drive (including ferry service). Do people seriously get on airplanes to go that kind of distance?

Aside from not having a car (don't need one in London), I'm usually going over for only a couple of days so it's not worth using up a full day for travelling and then being really tired from the drive when I get there and when I get back. You have to take in the price of petrol as well as the ferry, which stops it from being in any way cheaper and it's already not stress free. The ferry costs about £300 for one person travelling with a medium sized car, no roof rack, with no reserved seating. That's about 3 times as much as a flight and you'll have had to drive for half a day to get there.

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.

SF to LA is 6-7 hours, and I prefer to fly. Given that the drive to the airport is around 25 minutes, I usually arrive at the airport no more than an hour before my flight, the flight time is around an hour, and getting out of the airport post-landing takes about 10 minutes (I never check bags), that's less than 3 hours, during one of which I get to sit and do nothing (nap, listen to music, watch TV), versus 6-7 where I have to concentrate on driving. With the driving option, I also have to deal with parking at my destination.

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.

Are you Canadian? Drive 8 hrs in any direction in the UK and you're in the sea :-) So a drive of that distance is simply out of scope for most people.

Google maps estimates about 15 hours to drive from one end of Great Britain (the island) to the other.

If you allow for islands you are probably looking at more than a day (e.g. starting in the Shetlands).

American. Can't you drive under the sea, through a chunnel and into continental Europe? (Also, can't you take trains, likewise through a chunnel and into continental Europe?)

Generally I think if you're traveling city to city, you'd fly/take the train then use public transport at the other end. You only really need a car if you're venturing away from cities. Like there would be absolutely no point in driving to Paris and looking for a parking spot there when I could get the Eurostar straight to GdN. I'd even rather fly to Paris than drive, and no-one does that anymore...

Smart train operators like Eurostar realize that they are virtually airlines and behave as such.

Yeah, I just mentioned driving to point out the distances, because that's how Americans understand distance between cities. If you'd take the train to Paris why wouldn't you take the train to Dublin? (Or, well, to the ferry dock, and then the ferry to Dublin?)

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? :)

Dublin's a lot further than Paris, journey time wise. I can quite literally have breakfast at home and lunch in Paris and be back home in the evening (and have done that a few times). Travel to Dublin by rail/ferry is an entire day. And domestic rail travel in the UK is often not a pleasant experience. Even 1st class doesn't insulate you from the delays. And flying's likely cheaper too.

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?

Closer to 4 hours, and American cities have rush hour twice a day 8 hours apart, and rush hour usually lasts 2-3 hours, and "no one drives in NYC, there's too much traffic" and we don't like passenger rail, so that explains all of that.

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.

Yeah, Canadian flight prices are more expensive than US domestic flight (even when going to the US), not by a huge amount but enough to dissuade frequent use.

I'd be interested to hear other people's airline bad lists. Mine is basically United at the moment. (Largely for fleet age (in my personal experience), and dismissive FA's)

Prefer to when possible fly, JetBlue, Southwest and Alaskan Air if the price is drastically all over the board.

I don't really have a bad list. I first look for flights on Frontier then SW and Jetblue. If none of those work out I default to Delta for the skymiles and most of their planes have in flight internet from what I have seen.

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.

Delta. The only time you'll get me in one of their planes is for a one-hop to or from Atlanta, and even then I'll think hard about whether I can get on another airline. The number of patently absurd things they've done to me would fill quite a lengthy post, though.

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.

I just flew with them this weekend. I'm pretty sure they canceled the flight I was on due to a small amount of passengers (there were only ~10 people waiting in the terminal). This resulted in a 4 hour initial delay, missing my connection, an additional 2 hour delay waiting for the next connection.

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.

United's FAs have a real attitude problem. Their employee ownership programme hasn't instilled in them at all a sense of pride or commitment. Rather it's fostered resentment, as if they begrudge giving you a ride in their personal vehicle. Lots of amusing stores on untied.com.

Sabena were on mine (such a bad experience, never again) until they went bankrupt. Ryanair are at the top of my no-fly list.

In in the UK so my bad list is limited to Ryanair.

Having flown AirIndia on a few flights domestically, I understand where you're coming from. But in our experience, the AirIndia nonstop from JFK to Bombay is equivalent to the Delta nonstop, and much better than BA thru Heathrow.

I suggest you take a look at the direct Continental flight from EWR to BOM. It was very comfortable and they kept feeding you every few hours. I watched all the Harry Potter movies via the in-flight TV system.

I've traveled to about 30 countries within Africa, Asia, Middle East, Europe, Central America and a lot of travel within the US. Of course there have been hiccups along the way, but overall it's been pleasant and I just don't share the feelings with others that air travel is a horrible experience.

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.

How much will I pay for SFO to NYC? Well, that depends...is it more than two weeks out? Less than two weeks out? Is it a popular day to travel? Convenient route? Who else is flying? So many factors that make it difficult to know when to buy and what to expect to pay...

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?


It's a great article about something I've wanted to write about for a long time. I've been wondering why the airlines worked so hard to kill any differentiation and commoditize their business. The experience today is really similar on all airlines, with parts of it being exactly the same, outsourced away (ground handling, gates, security, lost luggage handling, etc).

They worked hard to commoditize because that's what customers wanted. I had a great experience flying Porter last Monday, but I'm not going to pay $30 extra on my next flight just for free beer and terra chips.

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").

I agree, every bit of the airline experience is being outsourced to the lowest bidder (from flying the planes down to fixing them). It's all too easy to purchase a ticket and never talk to any of the parent airline's employees but you'd never know. In some cases this is good and while in some cases, not so much.

IMO, most of the airlines don't want employees or to control a brand they just want to sell tickets.

Thats why the good LCC are very good (Southwestern, Virgin America, Westjet) - they do have good employees

When the majors play at being LCC by outsourcing everything to outfits with a single regional jet it's terrible.

I'm really sorry if it's a bit of an off-topic, but this thread seems like a good place to ask: anyone remembers this long and interesting multi-pages document (was posted on HN) about how prices on air tickets are calculated and how all this big system works? Can't find the link.

Thank you so much! I've been seeking this for months.

I think air travel is destined to be a commodity for most people. Typically when we are flying we are trying to get to another place, where we will be away from work and spending a lot of money. Think the trip to Disney World. Or your European vacation. By saving money on the flight we will have more money to spend at our destination.

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.

For me, price is #1, and everything else is a distant third.

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'.

The article lacks some statistics and research.

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.

> The article lacks some statistics and research.

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.

Sure, Skytrax surveys can draw conclusions about average difference between airlines but they don't really account for the variance in flight quality, which is one of the chief factors that discourages people from paying a premium for a "quality" airline...there's no guarantee of even acceptable quality by paying more and most LCCs offer a safe and tolerable environment. Moreover, their sample is necessarily skewed away from the many people who use price as their main or only differentiator between airlines.

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.

This post mentions loyalty programs for frequent flyers, but it completely underestimates their importance. The difference between business class and coach is so stark, just a reasonable chance at an upgrade completely decommoditizes the inventory. Because of this, the most profitable customers certainly aren't basing their decisions solely on price.

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.

You want to know what's really ruining air travel? Security. With e.g. TSA and their "exactly the wrong person for the job" approach to staffing, pricing scams (ever notice that right after you get out of the security check line, where they made you pour out your water, there is a store selling normal water for 5x the normal price?), etc., etc. the price for an airline ticket is basically asking you how much you'd be willing to pay to get gang raped. I hate flying now, and to the US most of all.

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.

I'm reading this article while staring at my confirmed boarding pass that reads, "Seat Request" right next to the shiny barcode.

seatguru.com addresses some of this already. Although, the limited extra info they provide doesn't often help to differentiate one flight from the other.

I buy Southwest always for one reason: no change fees. Every dollar I spend is applicable toward another fare if I don't go or want to change times. I spend more money sometimes, less money others, but always have confidence I'm not throwing money away or being nickel and dimed. Every single other airline focuses on profitability through obscurity and I simply can't stand that.

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