Chicken Scratches

What’s Wrong with Flying: How the internet killed travel

Air travel is in a downward spiral. Not literally of course, but
clearly and consistently, and everybody knows it. The airlines know
it, the airline employees know it, travel agents found out a while
ago, and consumers sure as Hell know it. There are a lot of reasons
for it, but this post talks about just one: Expedia.com.

Airlines claim the degradation in quality comes from increased
competition. They say they are forced to cut corners and reduce
features in order to stay competitive. Does this make sense?

What about other industries?

Well, if it did make sense, we might expect to see a similar pattern
in other industries. There is certainly vigorous competition in the
auto industry. Car companies struggle to meet their profit
margins. And yet, over the last twenty years, cars have gotten more
reliable, full of more features, and more fuel-efficient, when you
compare similar models. Competition has hurt the auto workers and
the bottom lines of the auto companies, but it has made the product
itself better for the consumer.

Why has this not happened in the airline industry? Cars and flights
are clearly two very different products, but what is the difference
that accounts for this discrepancy? The main factor, I believe, is
the way people make their purchases. When buying a car, a potential
purchaser reads all the specs, he goes to the dealership and
test-drives the car and kicks the tires. When the same person buys
an airline ticket, he types the itinerary into Expedia.com (or
Travelocity, or Orbitz) and gets a list of flights, ordered by
price. He picks the cheapest ticket and steels himself for a
miserable experience.

“Well,” contend the airlines, “people only care about the price of a
flight, so we sacrifice the customer experience to meet the demand
for lower prices.” They now even resort to secret fees for checked
bags, in-flight meals, even headphones to watch the movie. This is a
sneaky trick to manipulate the search engines. Those extra fees do
not show up in the results page. I challenge the assertion that
consumers only care about price to the exclusion of other factors. I
think the real problem is that price is the only piece of
information they are given.

The proof of the pudding

Try it. Go to expedia.com. Fill out the query form. Notice there is
no field for the number of checked bags, there is no field for
whether you will be having a meal, there is no field for whether you
will want to watch the movie. These are important factors that you
would want to take into account, but you are not given the
opportunity.

Now submit your search. You’re presented with a list of flights,
with the price in big black numbers and the flight schedule. That’s
it. No information about leg room, customer satisfaction, on-time
performance, in-flight food and entertainment options, cancellation
policies, or baggage handling. If you had this information, you
would take it into account, but since you don’t, you have no choice
but to base your decision on price alone.

When I go to Amazon.com to buy a fifteen dollar book, I can read
four pages of user reviews telling me about the book. When buying a
600 dollar cross-country flight, I don’t see a single user
review. There is nowhere for me to enter a review if I want to. The
technology is here. It’s everywhere. Everywhere except the airline
search engines. Why?

Why?

Maybe the airlines are scared to let the consumers have a
voice. Maybe they don’t want user reviews, because the reviews would
be overwhelmingly negative. If so, they are wrong. They’re not wrong
about the tone of the reviews; they would certainly be mostly
negative, at least at first. They are wrong about the effect the
reviews would have. In the long run, providing a way for consumers
to compare flights and airlines based on more than just price will
make flying a more pleasant experience for all. It will allow
airlines to compete based on quality, not just price. And it’s smart
business.

Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz are not going to change. They are
the Big Three of flight searches. They are cleaning up while the
airlines are suffering. There is not enough
competition
. The only way we will see an improvement is if
somebody else steps in and offers us an alternative way to shop for
flights. Google, are you listening? Amazon? Apple? Give us more
information. Please.

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