Six Useful Insights From The ‘Airlines For America’ Consumer Survey


Consumer views about airlines have always trended negatively. Airlines have been considered one of the five industry groups most hated by consumers, along with internet providers and cable companies. That’s in part because things can go wrong so often when you mix machines, Mother Nature, and people together. Even when things go well, tactics that have made airlines more efficient like more seats on planes, and unbundled pricing, have often frustrated passengers.

A recently released study by Airlines for America, the U.S. airline industry’s lobby group, called “Air Travelers in America”, reveals that attitudes toward airlines and traveling have changed little through the pandemic. While of course people are now more attuned to safety protocols in airports and onboard, the basic things people care about haven’t changed much. Also, the survey asked some questions that suggest the industry can do a better job communicating. Here are six key takeaways from this important survey:

Price Paid Is Still #1

When asked to rank items most important for a flight, 46% say that price is the most important thing. This number is a bit smaller than in earlier surveys, suggesting either that people care more about other things today or just didn’t want to sound cheap. Interestingly, only 4% rated inflight entertainment or quality of food and beverages as most important. This of course doesn’t mean those things aren’t important, but it does say that they may not sway a customer to particular airline if the price and schedule aren’t right.

The stated preferences versus revealed preference reality suggests that even more people actually choose based on price. This is supported by this survey in the question that asked specifically how important prices and fees were to the choice of airline. Here, 88% of the customers ranked this as “very important” or “somewhat important.” This is probably why investors are increasingly favoring low-cost, lower-priced airlines in recent IPOs and new market start-ups. The growth rate of low-price carriers is also much greater than the growth rate of higher-cost, higher-service oriented airlines. No matter the business model of the airlines, customers will care about the price to at least some extent.

People Don’t Shop Much

Pricing in the airline business gets as close to a truly competitive market as any industry. That’s because pricing is readily available to most consumers and there are often multiple competitors for each chosen itinerary. This may explain why almost 70% of airline passengers check only one or two sites before making a purchase. Another reason, and probably more likely, is that shopping takes time and customers learn to trust certain brands.

Being able to see many airline prices in one places is also easy for customers thanks to online travel agents like Expedia, and aggregators like Kayak. This is also why consumers don’t need to shop to see what the real market rates are for the flight they want to take.


Half Of Flyers Don’t Know Taxes Are Included In The Price

A few years ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT

) added the “Full Fare Rule.” Like cigarettes and gasoline, airline tickets now must include government-imposed taxes and fees into every fare. Yet just over half of buyers do not realize this, meaning that when they are comparing fares they are thinking that taxes will be added at the end. This is a case where the industry could do a better job making this clear.

The unfortunate part of this rule is that it was put in place largely because of the proliferation of add-on fees like baggage and seat assignments. But the U.S. DOT has no authority to regulate prices, so they only thing they could add to make it a “full fare” was the taxes. They used the “unfair and deceptive” standard to make this ruling, which is most curious. Prior to the full fare rule, passengers saw an $80 fare plus $20 taxes equals a $100 price. Today they only see the $100. But the DOT said the the old way was “unfair and deceptive” while this single $100 is more transparent. Huh? First, they couldn’t address the issues that bothered them (ancillary add-ons), and then they had to craft an argument to do something that half of customers still don’t understand, many years later.

Half Of Customers Aren’t Yet Ready For Biometrics

Even if it would make their trip speedier, almost half of U.S. flyers would choose not to use biometrics as part of their check-in and security processes. This creates friction for companies like Clear, who push biometrics as a way to get through security faster. Also, many airlines are developing their own biometrics tools to improve operational efficiency and enhance security. This survey response should serve as a caution to other industries looking at biometrics as a way to make things easier. I would hope that this answer would change to highly supportive over the next few years, especially as advances in this technology make it useful for a fully diverse population.

Many People Don’t Know The Airplane They Board

Fewer than 60% of travelers are aware of the aircraft they are boarding when they fly. That is largely because inside most planes look very similar, and the way an airline outfits its cabins can change the way people think about the airplane. Delta Airlines has one of the oldest fleets of all U.S. airlines, yet the interior of their planes look great and they generally score high on consumer comfort. Despite many people saying that they would avoid flying on the Boeing 737MAX after the plane had two fatal crashes and was grounded for almost two years, this has not slowed down the sales or deployment of the plane since its introduction. There has probably been at least one passenger who, while flying on a 737MAX, told their seat mate they would never fly on that airplane.

Most People Think Airlines Produce More Carbon Emissions Than Reality

The second area where this survey should encourage airlines to communicate more is on sustainability. While airlines worldwide produce 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions, over 80% of flyers think the number is much higher. About 10% think that airlines alone account for over 40% of the world’s CO2 emission problem! Airlines are one of the few industries that have set a goal to be net-zero on emissions by 2050, and between airlines and aircraft manufactures much is being done to ensure this happens. Airlines should be proud of their efforts in this area and keep pushing hard on this, but at the same time should not take on the full burden of this massive initiative.

Surveys like this are useful for industry leaders to gain insights on broad views held by consumers. They are limited since people often don’t do what they say they will do, but things like thinking airlines produce too much CO2 or that taxes are not included in their fare suggest that communication can be better and more focused. Like many surveys, these provide the best information when repeated over time and thus show insight as to how views are changing. It takes time to change opinions, so watching this Airlines for America survey over the coming years should be interesting.


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