Why Is the Customer Experience on US Airlines So Bad? (Or Is It So Bad?)

I’ve been emailing with a reader about the state of customer experience on US airlines, and I thought I’d share some of the conversation here, because it opens up a discussion about whether US airline service and experience is as bad as everyone seems to suggest, and whether everywhere else has it as good as we all think.

The point that kicked off the discussion was this: US airlines are now very profitable. Given that, why don’t they invest more in the experience, at least for premium travelers? Why should people who fly all the time feel like the rug is always being pulled out from under them?

My response (shortened) was this:

I think the airlines are figuring out the minimum service level required for each class…

As much as everyone complains, the airline industry is the healthiest it’s ever been. Literally ever. There is probably the right amount of competition, fares are high enough to turn a profit but not so high that demand is suffering, and people who just want very cheap fares have options on the low end. And I know everyone whines about service, but basically all domestic aircraft will have wi-fi and entertainment on them in the next 2 years. I’d trade a 2007 Continental half-turkey sandwich for that any day.

There is no other country in the world with an airline industry like ours. Large country, highly competitive airline marketplace, no flag carrier nor ex-flag carrier, and because of geography and visa laws, no possibility of using anywhere in the country as a transit point. So it’s not like the Middle East. It’s not like Singapore. It’s not like any airline in Europe. It’s its own entity, and it’s not really a passenger service industry, it’s just a utility. So for the first time ever they’re acting as a rational actor in a commodity environment: maximize pricing while minimizing cost at a place where you optimize revenues. Voila.

Singapore was a luxury provider because they didn’t fly short-haul and they were competing solely for long-distance traffic (primarily with BA and Qantas). Emirates was initially competing with Singapore for connecting traffic between Asia/Australia & Europe, so they had to compete with them from a service perspective. Then Qatar and Etihad had to match. The European airlines haven’t been historically profitable, and they have never figured out how to make short-haul work.

US carriers have to do all of that – short haul, compete with lowfare airlines on the same routes, while not being able to benefit from, say, connecting traffic between Europe & South America. They’ve done the most with the hand they’ve been dealt, no?

If you fly a 2-3 hour flight in Europe, there is likely no first class, no wi-fi, and no television. Yes, they give you a sandwich.

If you fly a 2-3 hour flight in the US, I’d say there is a 75% chance that you have a first class cabin, wi-fi, seatback TV, and paid something resembling a reasonable fare. A one-way ticket from Amsterdam to Frankfurt is $600.

The big 3 have now elevated the Transcon product to be perfectly acceptable for a 5-hour flight – full entertainment and wi-fi, a food offering of some sort, and really sold premium cabin options (remembering that it’s a 5 hour flight).

I think the issue is that US carriers do not compete on service in a long-haul environment. They’re somewhat subpar in a mid-haul environment (say <8 hours), but they offer a perfectly acceptable product for that distance. It appears to me that US short-haul travelers simply will not pay for the other stuff. They won't. They apparently will on transcon flights (because there's enough entertainment and finance industry business to support it), so the airlines have invested there. I wish I could see a future where airlines offered a better "more fun" flying experience. But nobody will pay for it. And because literally for the first time in the history of the US airline industry they've actually figured out how to make boatloads of money, I cannot imagine them making any crazy changes right now. So, I'm not sure service is actually bad. It seems to me that the airlines have focused investments on areas where customers will pay for it. Essentially, you've traded free food, drinks & pillows for paid wi-fi and television. I actually think that's a pretty good tradeoff, and well ahead of what most other airlines offer on flights under 5 hours in their regions.


  1. I think you are 100% correct. I also think people’s understanding of “adequate” and “superior” service are a little out of whack.

    The only thing I would really, really hope for is a slight improvement in the disposition of U.S.-based ground staff and cabin crew. I know it’s not an easy job, but the difference that a bit of cheer and a smile can make is cheap, easy and substantial…

  2. Agreed. Despite what they say, people don’t seem to mind paying for the checked luggage either. I can’t wait for the airlines to require payment for overhead bin space. What some people try to carry on is ridiculous (and slows the boarding process down).

  3. I have no issue with the on board product(s) if you will. I have issue with the staff. The staff for the most part, grind me the wrong way. Even when they are being “nice” it just really ends up feeling unpleasant. Either they are downright surly, or they are so unpleasantly falsely nice that it is unbearable. Part of this is reinforced that in all cabins they just want to disappear as quickly as possible and chill. Even to the extreme of “you cannot move into that empty row on an international flight” but then I see them sitting there….
    Never had any bit of such a feeling with foreign staff. This is a major problem that is difficult to address if it even is acknowledged as a problem!

  4. I’ve had great experiences with Australia domestic flights. No strict security check points, movies on short 2-3 hour flights plus a decent meal and desert in economy for $200 RT. Of course Qantas is in financial trouble…

  5. +1 for domestic Australia flights – I flew both Qantas and Virgin Australia short haul last month. Overall I felt the service was a good standard – kinda like the US was before 9/11, but updated (i.e. iPads/streaming content provided to everyone for entertainment). Baggage policies weren’t strictly enforced, as long as you weren’t pushing the envelope (officially you are limited to 7kg on-board. Despite scales, nobody was forcing you to weigh if your bag looked normal. I’m sure bulging or odd-sized carry-ons would attract attention). It was really a stress-free experience, which is what you want on vacation.

  6. The question is whether the “un-fun” nature of USA domestic travel discourages people — particularly high-paying business travelers — from taking as many trips as they would if: 1) the lounges were good; 2) they upgraded their best customers instead of selling the seats for 50 bucks; 3) the staff were more pleasant; 4) they extended more hospitality on board (like some food); and 5) they treated you more like a human being when problems came up or you had to change your plans (aka, the way you might be treated by a hotel).

    It may be that the current “utility” model of USA aviation is the profit maximizing one. Or it might be that less-sucky service would bring in more revenue. Without the data, I’m not convinced that the path the now-very-profitable USA airline industry is on is the most profitable one.

  7. You’re joking, right? The service on U.S. airlines is little short of appalling. I flew from Brazil to Miami recently on a U.S. airline and it was like something out of the 1980s. Appalling food, seats and entertainment.