Travelers are the Reason Air Travel Sucks

Alaska by Air

Great view, but still the worst seat in the house.

We have a secret to share. We actually hate traveling. Don’t get us wrong, we love destinations. It’s the getting there that sucks. That’s especially true when our travel plans involve boarding a commercial aircraft.

This isn’t news to anyone who has flown anywhere in the last decade or two. But a recent article at the travel hacking blog The Points Guy reminded me just how awful we all think air travel really is.

In an industry comparison, airlines ranked near the bottom at a score of 69/100, just ahead of internet service providers, social media and subscription TV services – so way to go airlines, you have cable companies beat!”

The article then goes on to make five suggestions for how airlines could improve customer satisfaction. Unfortunately, his suggestions all miss the biggest reason air travel is so terrible: travelers.

Even if the airline industry tried to implement all five of The Points Guy’s suggestions, flying would still suck. And it would suck for a very specific reason.

Travelers won’t pay for a better experience.

If we really wanted more leg room on airplanes we’d pay for more leg room on airplanes. And if a bunch of us started to do that, guess what would happen? We’d start seeing airlines offering a lot more legroom. The same goes for good customer service, umbrella drinks, foot massages, and whatever else you might want from your airline. The reason we don’t have these things is not because airlines can’t, or don’t want to, supply them. It’s because their customers are unwilling to pay for them.

Think about how you purchased your last plane ticket. Did you fire up a search engine that compares airline amenities, customer reviews, and seat sizes? In other words, did you look for the same things in a flight that you searched for in a hotel? Or did you seek out the cheapest flight with the fewest connections? 

If you’re like most people, you prioritized destination, flight time, and price when selecting your ticket, perhaps to the exclusion of all other considerations. If most of us selected our hotels the same way we choose our flights we’d all be sleeping in 20-person dorm rooms and wondering why hotel accommodations are so lousy.

Our collective preference for cheap flights is no secret to the airline industry. Every airline executive knows that if they put fewer, larger seats on their planes and price those seats accordingly, they’ll lose business to competitors who offer cheaper flights by cramming more people onto each aircraft. Even though we complain about contorting ourselves into cattle class seats, the industry gives us those seats because that is what we want them to do. 

The irony is that The Points Guy runs a blog that specializes in exploiting strategies and “hacks” for getting free airline tickets and upgrades. His entire site is the ultimate expression of what we’re willing to pay for airfare, which is as little as is humanly possible. And that, in a nutshell, is why flying sucks so badly.

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23 Comments on “Travelers are the Reason Air Travel Sucks”

  1. mytimetotravel April 28, 2014 at 9:30 am #

    That’s why I try to fly JetBlue domestically, and one of many reasons I prefer trains to planes. Most of the time I do enjoy the journey, provided I’m not flying. I once spent seven months traveling over 17,000 miles by train, and I still like trains.


  2. Jason April 28, 2014 at 10:02 am #

    Hi Guys,

    I agree that most international airlines cater for the majority, who are only prepared to pay for economy/coach. Many of the main airlines also have business and first class, for those willing to pay for comfort, service, increased privacy and seats that convert to lie flat beds. Enough travellers are prepared to pay the extra that it makes running two or three classes viable. A fair portion of the more exclusive seats are utilised by business travellers, where the company picks up the cost.If some one else is paying whay not? For those who have the means to pay for business or first, I say good luck to them.

    I have had the pleasure of Qantas business class between Sydney and LAX and it was really enjoyable. The company I was working for at the time paid the economy fare, I used 75,000 points for the upgrade. It was well worth it. I have flown this route six times and have have put up with economy each other time as I would rather spend the differnece between the fares on an adventure (such as a helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon) or a better hotel room.




    • Brian April 28, 2014 at 10:56 am #

      Agree that flying first/business is way better. I don’t know how many people pay to do that though. Even in your example, you used miles.

      But even so, there’s a huge difference between the front of the plane and the back. Airlines wouldn’t have to turn the entire plane into first class seating to improve the experience a ton, a few inches here and there would be a big improvement. It doesn’t seem to be something people are willing to pay for, though. Next time you’re on an airplane that has empty seats take a look at where those seats are located. In all my flights they’re always the “Premium Economy” seats that are empty.


  3. Tiny April 28, 2014 at 11:03 am #

    Amen to that! I always try to pay for more comfort using my points strategies and at times some money too when everything else fails. And I search my travel options much more carefully than my hotel options.


  4. digger666 April 28, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

    Reblogged this on digger666 and commented:
    Some uncomfortable, if not entirely complete, truths here. Our economic system also mandates the airlines maximise shareholder value. No matter what amenities you’d be willing to dig into your pocket to enjoy, the pressure to sardine tin passengers would never cease.


    • Brian April 28, 2014 at 3:40 pm #

      You can say the same thing about any company or industry; that there is economic pressure to deliver crappy products. But that same economic system the airlines navigate manages to deliver, for example, Nisan Versas, Bentley Mulsannes, and virtually everything in between. It does that because people have a wide variety of tastes in automobiles and they care about things other than just price. With airlines, though, people mostly want to just get where they’re going. That’s what they pay for. That’s what they get. Nothing more. Nothing less.


  5. Bronwyn Joy @ Journeys Of The Fabulist April 28, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

    And safety. I would like any airlines reading this article to know that I also prioritise safety, in fact that’s probably my number one. Seriously! Safety.

    But after that, price, flight times. For sure. I don’t think I have too much right to complain about the lack of foot massages.


    • Brian April 28, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

      Yeah, I think all of us would choose a safe airline over an unsafe one. Good thing flying is still by far the safest way to travel. So thankfully, they pretty much have that covered.


      • writecrites April 28, 2014 at 5:55 pm #

        With that Air France jet crashing into the Atlantic, and Malaysia Air disappearing in the Pacific, and several other airline safety problems (i.e. Boeing Dreamliner for one) in the news, are airlines really safer than trains? I think airlines could do better re safety of their planes. The quest for profits might be affecting money spent on effective maintenance.


        • writecrites April 28, 2014 at 6:03 pm #

          p.s. Yes, I know there are train crashes, too, but for me, falling out of the sky seems more terrifying than anything that happens on the ground, and each “ground” crash takes out fewer people than one commercial plane crash, which appears to improve a person’s odds for survival.


  6. Jason April 28, 2014 at 7:18 pm #

    This airline believes more people will pay for comfort:

    Will be interesting to see if scale lowers the fare.


    • Brian April 29, 2014 at 2:01 am #

      It looks to me like Skymark is trying to steal business class travelers from other airlines by offering these cheaper “premium economy” flights.

      “Skymark will deploy its Premium Economy-only A330 widebodies on key domestic trunk routes from Tokyo to Fukuoka and Sapporo to win market share among business travellers. ”

      If that’s true, what they’re doing is downsizing business class rather than up-sizing economy – at least that’s the strategy. Of course that won’t prevent would-be economy travelers from buying these tickets. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.


  7. lucinda032 April 28, 2014 at 9:49 pm #

    So very true. My first couple of overseas trips (from Australia, therefore always long haul) I got lucky – Virgin and Singapore Airlines. Last year I took United Airways to the US, and it was terrible. I am 6’2 and will never again choose a long haul flight based purely on price. Lesson learned.


  8. andytallman101 April 28, 2014 at 10:22 pm #

    I try not to complain about air travel much, even though I’m ridiculously tall so I have big problems with seats etc. I try to remember that it’s still pretty amazing that I get to move so far across the globe in so little time – and yes, I’m the one who decided to pay for a more “basic” experience so I could save a few dollars.

    That said – travelling around the US taught me that it’s often a better idea to take buses/trains etc when you can. Short flights look really appealing, as they are quick and usually at least as cheap as the other options. But once you factor in time spent at the airports and the hassle you have to go through – you’d be better off and more relaxed just taking the bus.


  9. Tony September 30, 2014 at 9:22 am #

    Yes, we look for the cheapest flights with the least amount of connections. But they can’t even DO THAT! Why would we want to pay for foot massages when they can’t even do the basics… buy a filet mignon from a joint that can’t even do burgers decently… get it. I think we’re talking about 2 different things about why flights suck. Most people want to just get there, preferably on time. That’s all. Just give us that and we’ll consider bigger seats etc.


  10. Shawn hall February 22, 2015 at 4:40 pm #

    This article is absurd. Airlines made 22 billion dollars in profit last year, the problem is that air travel has no free market incentives to do better. They know that at most you usually only have 1 or 2 options of what airlines to fly to your destination. So as long as both airlines agree to suck and have high prices they know you won’t go elsewhere Because you cant. Air travel simply shouldn’t be a private industry.


    • Brian February 22, 2015 at 8:18 pm #

      Then it’s appropriate, I guess, for you to respond with an absurdly inaccurate comment. How absurd? Let me count the ways.

      1) The $22 billion you cite in airline profits is global profits i.e. the total of all the profits earned by every airline around the world.
      2) If you think $22B sounds like a lot for an entire global industry, consider that Apple earned nearly twice as much ($39.5B) all by itself last year.
      3) $22B in profit means an industry-wide profit margin of just 3.2% – hardly the monopolistic or oligopolistic profits you suggest they’re earning through price collusion. Either they’re not colluding on price, or they really suck at it.
      4) According to a flight from Pittsburgh to Dallas (not exactly a first tier route) is served by six different airlines, not one or two.
      5) Also according to Kayak, I can fly from NY to Chicago (on a randomly selected date) for $89. It’d cost you about as much for gasoline ($82) to drive from NY to CHI in the typical American car.
      6) I could go on, but I think you get the point.


  11. sylverfish May 8, 2015 at 4:22 pm #

    google flights suck….never get the airfare shown!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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