“Flying sucks. Could they make my seat any smaller? I can’t believe they’re charging to check a friggin’ bag!” Sound familiar? Of course it does. After baseball and apple pie, the next great American pastime is complaining about flying. And it’s not just an American pastime; it’s a global one that brings us together like the Olympics or… um, an alien invasion?
Many people seem to think they should pay 2010 prices for 1960s service and complain if they don’t get just that. Yet despite this willingness to complain at the drop of a hat, for people travelling in coach, an airplane ticket has effectively become a commodity.
Whose fault is it that we’ve gotten to this point? There are a lot of places to lay blame, but even if airline marketing efforts were stellar, distribution methods make it very hard to actually sell the product. That’s where the biggest improvements can, and should, be made.
Think about how someone goes about buying a ticket. Do they go to a travel agent? Usually only managed business travellers do that for a simple flight booking, and then they’re bound by their corporate policies about which carrier to choose. For the regular everyday traveller, most would have trouble finding a travel agent who’d want to book just a flight and nothing else.
So, many people venture onto the Internet, and what do they find? Not much worthwhile. Nearly every place you go to look for a flight shows you your options by time and by price. We all know that price and schedule are the most important things when it comes to making an air travel purchase, but that doesn’t mean they have to be the only things customers see.
If you’re travelling in a premium cabin, you’ve already demonstrated that price is less important to you than comfort and amenities. You’ll need to do some digging to find the information you need, but you’re probably willing to do that. It’s coach passengers who are left in the dark since they may not even realize product differences exist at similar price ranges.
In a previous life, I built a travel metasearch site for PriceGrabber.com that incorporated on-time performance, seat pitch, and inflight entertainment in the flight display, among other things. The site was eventually shut down thanks to one of those dreaded “changes in direction” at the company, but not before we discovered that people really liked having this information.
We saw plenty of people paying $20 more for a ticket when they saw that the legroom was a couple inches better. Oh, and for families travelling with children, that seatback video screen was a lifesaver worth paying for. (It’s also a lifesaver for those sitting within a couple rows of those kids.)
These days, in my air travel assistance business, I’ve seen clients shun AirTran’s 717s because of the tight legroom. Others have wanted to fly Alaska because of the much lower change fee. These things aren’t obvious to the customer who simply books online, so most of the time, they remain outside the decision-making process. Airlines that have product differentiators are missing out on drawing additional customers because of this dearth of information during the booking process.
But this is only part of the story. It’s not just important for choosing between airlines but also for choosing the right fare within a single airline. Let me explain.
Some airlines, notably Air Canada and Frontier Airlines, have done a great job of building the product into their own fare displays. When you go to their websites to search, you’ll see a few different fares listed in different fare-type categories. It’s easy to hover over to see the benefits of paying more.
But unfortunately for them, that’s not where they sell all their tickets. They still do a ton of business via online travel agencies like Expedia and Kayak who aren’t communicating the product differences effectively.
If I want to buy a ticket from Long Beach to Denver on Frontier, the online travel agents will show me a $200 fare. (That’s just a nice round number and nothing more.) I can buy the ticket or I can fly someone else. That’s it.
But if I go to the Frontier website, I find that for $30 more, I can snag an advance seat assignment, get LiveTV included without additional charge, increase flexibility by reducing change fees, have two checked bags included, and more.
For a lot of people, that’s well worth paying the $30. But if I book anywhere outside of FrontierAirlines.com, I’ll never know these options existed.
The bottom line is that until the distribution method changes, air travel will continue to be a commodity for those in the back of the bus. You’ll often hear airline managers complaining about people only caring about price and schedule, but much of the blame lies on the system and not on the customer.