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Comparing Airfare is Frustrating: What Would Make You Loyal?

This article was written by in Consumer, Travel. 29 comments.


Retails airlines are battling their customers. People shopping for flights generally want one thing: the lowest price on airfare. The airline industry doesn’t want that to be the case. They’re making this shopping process more difficult for their customers. For example, some airlines do not make their prices available through websites that aggregate fares, like Expedia and Kayak. Last year, when I searched for the best fares for a visit to California on Kayak, American Airlines was included in the results. This year, the airline wants potential customers to visit its own website to find the fares.

Also, it’s getting more difficult to compare actual fares due to the addition of small fees for everything from a meal to bringing a carry-on bag into the cabin. Due to the complexity, the fees are not fully disclosed on fare aggregation websites when sorting the search results by price for example, so the shopper must perform additional research to make a purchase decision based on price.

Additionally, airlines claim to be unique brands, but the public isn’t seeing it. Most people, when they fly from JFK to LAX for example, feel the experience will be roughly the same regardless of the airline. These companies want to set themselves apart from the others and attract customers, and are trying hard to train customers not to shop on price. I don’t think it’s working. Flights are seen as a commodity where all products are similar enough that the only determining factor is price. Furthermore, the nickel-and-dime practice with fees is not gaining the industry or any one airline more fans. There is little differentiation.

Without the need to publish rates to external databases, American Airlines and any other airline that follows suit would be able to better control prices without reacting to the marketplace. They would be able to offer exclusive deals on the company’s own website only, and have more flexibility to adjust rates. All of this makes it more difficult for shoppers to evaluate prices. If airlines want to be evaluated beyond airfare, they’ll need to offer distinctive services that customers actually want.

Each airline wants loyal customers, and that’s another way of saying they want customers who are willing to pay higher prices in exchange for some sort of value perceived in a brand.

What kind of services would make you loyal to one airline company?

New York Times

Published or updated February 11, 2011. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar tom

Call yourself “Southwest” and you’ll have my loyalty.

But seriously, no baggage or hidden fees, up front pricing, clear and concise ticketing procedures. Southwest doesn’t subscribe to any of the aggregation systems and I don’t hold it against them in the least because their system and prices are straight forward.

With Southwest, there are few frills and your experience is exactly the same every time. It’s because of that (and with a whole host of behind the scenes processes, i.e. the same type of aircraft, streamlined maintenance, etc.) that they are the most profitable airline.

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avatar Bobka ♦13 (Newbie)

I totally agree. Southwest has found the sweet spot to maintain customer loyalty. Spirit Airlines, on the other hand, does everything possible to alienate customers. Most recently they changed the weight limit for “overweight” bag fees without giving passengers forewarning. Passengers arrived at the airport with bags between 40 and 50 pounds and were charged extra weight fees in addition to the normal bag fees. I don’t see how anyone caught in that “Gotcha” would ever want to fly Spirit again, even if they were giving the tickets away for free!

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avatar OrchidGirl ♦16 (Newbie)

I have to agree. Southwest is so great about not adding on tons of extra fees, keeping prices down, and being amazingly flexible about changing flight plans.

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avatar TakeitEZ ♦549 (Dime)

I don’t want any fancy service. I just want to reach my destination safely and comfortably. So I would be loyal to the airline who consistently has the competitive prices.

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avatar LL

I am loyal to Southwest during personal travel. Their fares are competitive, though not always rock-bottom, but the flexibility they offer (no change fee!) is well worth my loyalty. Change fees are an outrageous money grab, in my opinion. Plus, since they don’t charge for checked bags – another outrageous fee from other airlines – there aren’t as many problems during boarding. I recently flew with another airline, (because I needed a last minute flight and had miles) and after a certain number of passengers had boarded, the gate agents told everyone the overhead bins were now full, and bags had to be checked. This resulted in more delays, unhappy passengers, and guess what? The overhead bins were not even CLOSE to full. When questioned, the flight attendants informed the now-angrier passengers that the gate agents make this announcement after a number of passengers board, and do not actually know – or care – whether the bins are full. Ridiculous.

I frequently fly to Canada for work, and I always fly Air Canada. They also have friendly employees – like Southwest, don’t charge for bags, have free in-flight entertainment – each seat gets its own tv and power outlet! Other airlines seem to not care about the comfort and happiness of their passengers. It irks me greatly to be treated that way, while I am a paying customer.

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avatar Steve

The AA thing isn’t about forcing consumers to use their web site. It’s about forcing the aggregators to do so. Well, to use AA’s new, proprietary system for accessing fares, rather than an intermediary company (e.g. Sabre) like they’ve been doing forever.

Coincidentally, Southwest has traditionally been one of the airlines that doesn’t want their fares shown by aggregators.

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avatar rewards ♦31 (Newbie)

An interview on NPR had an AA executive saying that they *do* want customers visiting their websites for a “superior” experience. I don’t fly AA, but in my experience united.com and northwestairlines.com (well, delta.com) provide some of the slowest, confusing, circuitous experiences around.

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avatar krantcents

Good service is important to me! For domestic flights, I like Virgin American (lax to JFK). Short flights (Burbank to Oakland), I like Southwest. Overseas, I like Lufthansa. I hate paying for checked luggage, so I used carrying on domestically, although Delta and Continental allow me one (1) free bag. International, I fly first or business class (using frequent flier miles) so I don’t worry about baggage.

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avatar cubiclegeoff ♦896 (Dime)

I mainly pick the airline with a nonstop flight to where I’m going, and then I go by price. Layovers offer too much potential for a real hassle that make the nonstop worth it. This almost always keeps southwest out of my choices.

Then, I basically try to avoid a handful of airlines that I’ve been on before and have had terrible service with, mainly Delta and US Airways. Even if they’re cheaper, I’ll pick another airline because they are so terrible.

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avatar Ridwan ♦295 (Nickel)

When I went to Beirut two summers ago, I flew Emirates because it was the best option in terms of price & layovers available when I bought the ticket. Now, if I ever have the choice, I would always choose Emirates. Why?

They’re pricier than average, but the experience is so much better than Delta (the only other airline I’ve flown frequently). Free hotel room in Dubai during layovers, no hidden fees or confusing pricing (it was all laid out clearly on the website), and excellent customer service. I’ve also found that their flight attendants are generally much more pleasant. I get very dehydrated on planes, so I ask for water more frequently than the average passenger. On Emirates, after a while a flight attendant brought me a large bottle of water with a smile. On Delta, I get a scowl if I ask too much.

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avatar Jenna

One good customer experience! I fly a lot and there always seems to be issues. Airlines have the upper hand because as a consumer, we need to use their service, no matter what airline.

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avatar skylog ♦368 (Nickel)

as others have said, southwest has won me over with their service and few fees compared to other airlines. i would be loyal to any airline that could get me from point A to point B safely, quickly and problem-free for a good price.

that said, not related to this specific topic, i am interested to see how the airlines evolve in the future. i have seen and read quite a few disturbing reports regarding airline safety. a lot of these issues dealing with pilots and how many of them are making such low wages and having trouble making ends meet. this is a very distrurbing trend.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,373 (Platinum)

I’ve heard such great things about Southwest — particularly from commenters, but from family and friends as well. I’d love to check them out, but unfortunately, they just don’t offer direct flights from where I live to the places I usually want to go. So for now, no Southwest for me, but if any random trips come up, I’ll definitely keep them in mind.

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avatar rewards ♦31 (Newbie)

Southwest offers many flights with just one layover. (I typically fly SWA cross-country). In my experience, those layovers run very smoothly and add approximately 90 minutes to the total flight (layover plus slightly longer flight since it’s A->B->C rather than A->C). For me, the on-time departures, smoothness, no non-sense, friendliness, customer service, etc. etc. are worth the extra 2 hours.

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avatar jim

Overall I haven’t seen airlines do enough to differentiate themselves as far as service. So it generally boils down to price.

The problem I see is that airline prices vary so randomly and not all airlines go everywhere so you basically always have to check prices. I checked prices on one destination and it has a range of $170 for nonstop up to $280 for 1 stop. Another flight has prices going from $350 to $720. I’m not going to just automatically pick my favorite airline and run the risk that I’ll be paying double.

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avatar Bob Collins

Southwest. They are so good that, in my search as to where I move next, proximity to an airport served by Southwest is a factor. The are good, efficient, and predictable with a good-to-great price. Oh, and they have the best website of any of the airlines, by far.

I wish they had more direct flights but, even there, I see them experimenting to see if and when a particular long flight is viable.

My only worry is that they really don’t have any competition, at least in the western US. I hope that someone (jetBlue?) might try to fill that role.

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avatar rewards ♦31 (Newbie)

Ahh… cities with Southwest and Costco :)

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avatar John Williams

One thing that might make me loyal to someone other than Southwest would be if an airline had consistent prices. If the price did not change as frequently or vary as much for a seat on the same flight; where i knew i pay the same as the guy sitting next to me to fly; i’d expect the seats are less than other airlines a majority of the time. Consistent pricing would also mean no additional fees.

If one airline had faster flights then that would also be a reason i’d be loyal. it is worth paying more for direct flights sometime. It would be worth paying for faster flights all the time.

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avatar Cejay ♦1,521 (Half-Dollar)

No hidden fees. WHen I get an airfare let that price be the true price I pay. Better customer service. Treat me like a real person with feelings not a dummy that you have just taken. More legroom would be too much to ask for but I would be a passenger for life.

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avatar DonnaFreedman ♦2,454 (Dollar)

Some kind of warning about the fees. I got an e-mail about a $611 airfare to London, England. I knew there would be fees, but…The ticket was $835 when all was said and done.
Don’t get me wrong: I still would have bought it because I really want to make this trip. But when people hear about a “low” fare, they expect the final tab to be in the neighborhood of the advertised price.
Maybe there was fine print that I missed. But $224 in fees…wow.
I’ve flown Southwest a few times and yep, they were great.
The staffers at US Airways were very kind and helpful to me recently when I was traveling with a sprained ankle. I’d injured myself on the trip and in fact came to the airport directly from the emergency room. The plane was delayed and the gate agent kept coming over to check and make sure I was all right. She also pointed out a hidden electrical outlet where I could plug in my laptop. Once I was on the plane, the flight attendant checked in with me a couple of times during the short flight (less than two hours).
I’ve always had good luck with Alaska Airlines, too. In fact, when I had to check my carry-on during one leg of that recent trip (I couldn’t pull it and maneuver on crutches), the agent waived the fee. Bless her heart.

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avatar Bucksome Boomer ♦236 (Cent)

There are too many factors for me to be loyal to one airline but I do have favorites. The decision on which airline to buy the ticket from depends on price, routing, and flight times. All things being nearly equal my favorites in order are: Southwest, Jet Blue, American and Delta.

Cannot stand USAirways or United.

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avatar faithfueledbennetts ♦264 (Nickel)

I am loyal to Southwest for several reasons. They almost always have the lowest prices while at the same time the best service. No added fees for baggage while other carriers are nickel & diming their customers. Southwest also has great children care on board. If I fly with my daughter for example, who is under 2, and the flight is not full, they will allow for FREE her car seat in the seat next to mine rather than her in my lap. I’ve never had an issue flying Southwest over the past 10 years. They are doing it right. Plus, they have a great rewards system for free flights!

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avatar Funny about Money

Simple: Treat me like a human being, not like a cow to be jammed into a cattle car. Provide decent service, provide comfortable accommodations, see that I am not assumed to be a criminal before I am tried and convicted of blowing up your airplanes, and do not nick and gouge me every time I turn around. I’m willing to pay the full fare for what was once considered routine treatment; bargains appeal less than decent customer service.

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avatar Frequent Flyer

For flying in the states I like Alaska but when in England I use Eastern Airways. They both provide excellent customer services at competitive rates!

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avatar eric ♦1,549 (Half-Dollar)

Well my local airport is a Southwest hub so I guess I have to join the masses. I’ve used them long before they became the big thing in the airline industry, but they deserve the praise. I just count myself lucky.

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avatar wylerassociate ♦906 (Dime)

Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to fly southwest yet but I like the no fees for checked bags. I would like to be treated with respect when I fly and not have to pay for each and every “amenity” that the airline offers.

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avatar Steve

Basically I avoid airlines that hate me. I usually travel with a bicycle–I understand that there is an extra fee for that, and that’s fine. But $300–give me a break. So, I always fly Southwest domestically and US Air or British Air internationally. Delta, United etc. have made it clear that they don’t want 130 lb. cyclists on their planes–I’m happy to oblige them.

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avatar Twiggers

I live in an AA hub city and am about to move to another AA hub city. That right there gets my loyalty because they have the most nonstop options. I also use their credit card and online shopping mall to maximize mileage earning.

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avatar 4hendricks ♦248 (Cent)

Nothing at this point can make me loyal – I need to get from A to B as cheaply as possible. Period.

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