Decades ago, airline travel was considered a glamorous and exciting mode of transport, reserved for the rich and elite.
Yet while air travel has become more democratic and affordable, industry research shows that people increasingly dislike air travel.
A 2015 survey by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) found people were prepared to queue no more than 10 minutes through security. More than half wanted to wait no more than 1-3 minutes to drop off their luggage. But the real dissatisfaction began once passengers were onboard, with in-flight service and seat size topping the list of complaints.
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What is the source of this dissatisfaction? The belief that air passengers simply don’t realise how good they have it is growing – and not just among industry advocates, where one would expect it, but also from industry share analysts and some economists.
Since the worldwide deregulation of airlines began four decades ago, the inflation-adjusted cost of air travel has fallen dramatically. Now anyone can afford travel to their favourite destination, whenever they want.
Why, then, are consumers such sourpusses? Lower prices have created much more demand for air travel, leading to congestion and more delays – by-product of the industry’s success. Then there are those hated security procedures, another source of delays. Again, that is outside airline control.
The main driver of consumer complaint is misperception. Taking a leaf from behavioural economics, air travel for most people is infrequent enough that most people don’t realise the true extent of the fall in cost. Computer prices, for example, have fallen dramatically over the past 40 years and people buy computers enough to notice and appreciate that. Similar price falls have occurred in air travel, but are less noticed because such travel is generally not as frequent as computer upgrades.
Loss of “perks” like meals is much more noticeable and memorable, something behavioural economists refer to as ‘salience’.