What do air travellers want?

Photo credit: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt/Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt/Wikipedia Commons


I flew with SATA International from Toronto (Canada) to Lisbon (Portugal) via Ponta Delgada in the Azores only because it was comparatively more affordable and I thought offered a more direct routing instead of having to transit long hours in another European airport that may involve a change not of airplanes but airlines and airport terminals.

I did not know what to expect in terms of comfort and service, but was pleased that it was an overnight flight leaving at 2100 hours, which means I could sleep through whatever the level of service and not having to deal with it. But, as it turned out, it was a reasonably satisfactory experience.

I could not complain about the narrower seat pitch as there were two empty seats between me and my wife. The service was taciturn but efficient, and I wondered if it had anything to do with the fact that it was an all-male crew for economy. SATA is not a budget carrier, so a hot meal was served for dinner, and there was breakfast before the first touchdown.

In-flight entertainment on Air Canada. Photo courtesy Air Canada.

In-flight entertainment on Air Canada. Photo courtesy Air Canada.

In fact, I found the experience strangely nostalgic as I recalled my early years of flying when airlines such as Singapore Airlines (SIA), Cathay Pacific and United Airlines showed movies on an overhead screen. Of course, it would be nice to have your private video-on-demand (VOD). On this occasion, since I had already seen Trouble with the Curve, it actually gave me time to catch up on a little reading and forced me after that to have some shut-eye. You may however feel differently if it were a day flight.

All said, the experience also made me reflect on what air travellers actually want. My focus is general rather than specific. It is what – for want of a better phrase – the average traveller wants. You have to make exceptions for the well-heeled who could afford first class whatever the price, or for that matter, budget travellers at the other extreme who are guided by the lowest cost even if it means taking them half-way across the globe before arriving at their destination. Even then, there are clearly preferences that cut across all classes.

You want to fly safe. While some people would rely on the reputation of an airline, many simply travel in faith – especially when choice is limited. So in reality, it may not even figure in the wish list – not because it is not important (when it is in fact the single most important factor), but because it is a given.

You want to pay the best (not necessarily lowest) price for your ticket. Since the 2009 economic crisis, air travellers have become more conscious of the cost of flying, which explains the flourish of budget carriers, the downgrading from upper to economy class by many erstwhile business travellers that has adversely affected the performance of many legacy airlines, and the industry trend to levy separate charges for add-ons. At no other time are travellers more ready to shop around and compare rates, aided by their being more savvy with the computer and the accessibility of useful information. Fares advertised by airlines without compliance to the bottom-line rule legislated in the European Union, the United States and Canada can be deceptive as extras can add up to a fair bit. However, while cost has become an increasingly significant consideration, it is not the only determining factor.

You want to get from point A to B in the shortest time possible. Is it a direct flight between two points, and if not, how many stops are there in between? If there are stops, how long is the transit and does it incur an overnight stay? Leisure travellers may not mind the one stop or two in between, and sometimes it is not a matter of choice. More than that, it becomes onerous. In fact, airlines generally do not operate milk runs to cater to these so-called globe trotters, but to drop off and pick up passengers en route. Flying is tiring – even when you premium class; who has not heard of jetlag?

Long security line at an US airport. Photo credit: Doug Pensinger.

Long security line at an US airport. Photo credit: Doug Pensinger.

You want minimum transit and connection time and minimum hassle if it is not a direct flight. But, complain as you may, you will put up with the inconvenience as a necessary evil. Through check-in these days has taken care of a lot of the hassle even if it means changing airplanes or connecting a different airline. The bigger headache may be the stringent security checks practised by some airports and where passengers are required to take out their bags for inspection at the first port of call.

You are becoming less concerned about brand loyalty and are prepared to switch airlines for the best deal. Besides, with extensive code shares, you may well be flying an airline other than the one you are booked with. The economic crisis has not only intensified but also levelled the competition as airlines cut back on frills and seek ways to reduce costs. However, to retain loyalty, airlines are becoming more generous with their frequent flyer rewards.

You may be concerned about the lack of alternative arrangements or compensation in the event of a flight cancellation or delay. It is true that under the circumstances you are in better stead when flying with a bigger operator with higher frequencies. But then, who books to travel in the knowledge that the flight may be delayed or cancelled?

You want seat comfort and good cabin service up in the air. First, the seat as to whether it is wide and deep enough with a good incline. If the difference in pitch matters, it is likely to be felt more in economy than in the upper classes. This varies across the airlines although the differentiation in many new aircraft is not much of a deal. Even among the best airlines, the bonus is getting the seat you want and an empty one beside yours. But chances are less when you book with a popular airline. Unless it is really bad, it is likely you will make do.

Second, the in-flight entertainment system as to whether it is adequate in terms of quality, user-friendliness, choice and suitability. Many airlines have introduced cutting-edge technology that enhances the entertainment, and many spoil their customers for choice of programmes. When I fly with SIA, Cathay Pacific and Air Canada, I expect to catch up with the latest Hollywood blockbusters. Not all airlines offer sufficient programmes in English, and that sometimes presents a disappointment for the international traveller. Since the introduction of VOD, cabin crew have benefitted from reduced attention demanded of them by passengers. Yet strangely I found my SATA experience quite a pleasant change, and I asked if in-flight entertainment has been over-hyped. I was quite happy to be free of the “must watch” impulse at the expense of a good rest.

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Third, the meals and refreshments as to whether they are sufficient and reasonably palatable. But the more that you fly, the less you become excited about this.

Fourth, newspapers if available in economy run out quickly. Magazines are even more a rarity. Bring your own reading materials and you shall not want.

Fifth, the service by the crew as to whether it is friendly, courteous, efficient and adequate. It feels good to be pampered, but you get by so long as the minimum standards are met and especially if the crew is efficient. Unless it is really bad all round, the lack of one service attribute is usually compensated by the presence of the others.

Collectively, in-flight service can influence a traveller’s choice of airlines. But for many people, it usually figures ex post facto, much less as a prerequisite. Is it therefore all that big a deal, without denying it significantly shapes the traveller’s experience but only post factum?

Courtesy Condor Air

Courtesy Condor Air

Courtesy Condor Air

Courtesy Condor Air

I recall flying Condor Air only because it is linked to Lufthansa. I could not complain about the seat, nor the meal and refreshments. I was not interested in the movie – the ubiquitous Trouble with the Curve shown on an overhead screen (as in the case of SATA) – and was quite happy to occupy myself with crossword puzzles in print form. The crew was not particularly friendly but efficient. After take-off, the purser announced a special offer of US$200 for upgrade from economy to premium economy which is segregated by an invisible line: same seat pitch, only that you get magazines, served first with a choice of meals, and refreshments on demand. There were no takers.

You dread but are probably resigned to poor ground service. You cannot get round this, not if airlines themselves pay little heed to them, except to complete as much of the pre-flight requirements online as there are available. Increasingly online check-in, advanced seat selection and the possibility of self-activated change, meal requests and flight status updates are becoming key features of a travel bag of perks, and some airlines are beginning to charge them as add-ons even though it actually reduces the work downstream. At least for the customer, they do not bark and bite. This is not saying that I myself have not on occasions been pleasantly surprised at some airports. Your air travel experience may literally begin and end on the ground (as a certain airline has boasted), but it can also mean a stressful start, and sometimes what ought to be a sweet ending or a big relief turns out to be the grief of missing or lost luggage, an unduly long delivery of the bags otherwise, and the absence of assistance when you most needed it.

You hope not to have to resort to using after-sale service. When you do, it can only mean problems, and airlines are not particularly good at handling customer issues. And if you have to telephone them, be prepared with a thick book to while away your time while waiting for a response!

Phot credit: Alexander Jonnson/Wikipedia Commons

Phot credit: Alexander Jonnson/Wikipedia Commons

Indeed, this is a more complex business than it appears. Ironically, an airline like Ryanair is raking in more profits than some more reputable airlines in spite of its widely known poor and rude service – a clear indication perhaps of how the players are increasingly competing on price as the main determinant of a customer’s preference. But it is not as straightforward as that. No doubt cost matters, but it is really the customer’s perception of value vis-avis what he is willing to pay – the one-stop instead of a direct flight, the no-meal option for a short flight at a lower cost, an acceptable level of comparative discomfort or not so friendly service within tolerable limits, the irrationality of paying much more for a brand when there is a similar alternative available, all these amongst other possible considerations including whether is worth paying an additional US$200 to move forward for more glasses of orange juice, some magazines you are unlikely to want to read, a choice of meals and a little more attention from the crew.

If only, you wish, airlines understand what their customers really want! Not that they are not trying, noting that many of them are constantly competing to introducing impressive new-fangled features to attract new customers. But, at what price? There is a lot of appeal in one airline’s selling line that the journey is in itself a destination. Not quite nowadays. Air travel has become as mundane as riding in a bus or train. In fact, the modern train offers an attractive alternative – if time is not a factor – without the hassles of pre-flight formalities, the need to travel long distance to an airport and the higher possibility of a flight delay. Whatever the mode, it is only a means to an end. The choice depends on how the customer perceives it to be the best-value means within the constraints of what he wants, what he can afford and what circumstances that necessitate the travel. It is a complex mix, and the winning formula will ever be an elusive one.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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