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Why flights are getting more uncomfortable

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America’s airlines have become experts at earning money in recent years. More specifically, they’ve discovered the power of auxiliary income. As a result, complimentary services like checked luggage or in-flight snacks have been unbundled into new money-making avenues.

Two years ago, the term basic economy didn’t exist in the vocabulary of most US flyers. These days, the no-frills airfare is the first thing you see when you go online to buy plane tickets.

And let’s not forget about the baggage fees, seat selection fees, and ticket surcharges.

Then there are the new slimline seats that are less comfortable, but allow airlines to cram more rows of passengers into a plane.

In other words, flying is becoming more cramped, less comfortable, and comes with fewer amenities.

So, who should we blame for the deterioration in the quality of air travel in the US? We’ve all heard the complaints about cost-cutting airlines looking to boost its financial performance or greedy Wall Street investors trying to squeeze every drop of blood from America’s consumers.

But what about us? Are we, as consumers, complicit in all of this?




Chris Brignola/Unsplash

Unfortunately, the answer is yes.

That’s because we have voted, consistently, with our wallets that the cheapest flight is the flight we buy.

In a poll conducted last month by our partners at MSN, 51% of Americans said their top priority when selecting which airline to fly was the price of the ticket. Twenty-one percent said flight time while another 11% indicated the airline’s safety record was the top factor.

But of the 209,000 Americans polled, just 6% said comfort was their top priority when picking which airline to fly.

And the airlines have certainly heard its consumers loud and clear. In a bid to lower prices, US airlines have become masters at figuring out what we can do without.

Scott Olson / Getty Iamges

Their strategy has worked. Flying has indeed become more affordable. According to the US Department of Transportation, the average price of a plane ticket in 1997, when adjusted for inflation, is $438. By 2007, that figure had fallen to $384. Last year, the average price of a flight was down to $347.

But a consumer that goes with the cheapest flight is also a consumer that is providing positive reinforcement for the airline industry’s cost-cutting strategy.

As a result, airlines are rarely rewarded financially for delivering comfort and convenience while they are consistently rewarded for low prices.

This is how we ended up with basic economy. With the rise of ultra-low-cost carriers likes Spirit and Frontier, mainline carriers like American, Delta, and United Airlines needed a way to compete on price.

“The reality is that people have proven to the US airline industry time and time again that, at volume, they prefer the lower advertised price regardless of how many add-ons they have to pay for,” Vinay Bhaskara, a senior business analyst with industry publication Airways told us in an interview last year.


Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

For instance, before American Airlines unbundled its economy product, it struggled to compete against Spirit Airlines for value travelers. “The low-cost carrier always won because people either don’t care or aren’t sophisticated enough to differentiate between a bundled and unbundled fare,” Bhaskara added.

Going with what’s cheap and affordable is a perfectly reasonable strategy. Flying remains an expensive way to travel. And few people have the luxury of paying for comfort. However, if more of us reward airlines that invest in customer experience and in-flight service, it will provide tangible proof to the industry that price isn’t everything. Until then, get ready for more cramped quarters and uncomfortable seats.

MSN Poll results are analyzed to represent the US aduItpopulation or specific sub-demographics. MSN describes the US aduItpopulation by thousands of combinations of age, gender, education, location and several other demographics. MSN takes the raw polling data and models how demographic groups answered each question, and then projects those answers onto the true distribution of the demographic groups. The method was tested in the 2016 election and proven to be as accurate as other polling methods — more details can be found here.

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