When I read (or write) reviews of flights there is nearly always a section about the in-flight entertainment system. Airlines are constantly innovating on this front, with on-demand programming, streaming wireless content and ever larger screens and content collections. At the same time, however, it seems that many passengers don’t actually care. Or, more pointedly, they care about other things a lot more.
The Sydney Morning Herald has an article out this week asking passengers whether they care more about IFE or personal space on the plane. The results are nearly unanimous: personal space wins nearly every time. Even more telling are the comments offered up on the site. Passengers are desperate for more personal space.
But reading both the article and the comments also exposes the sad truth as to why the airlines are pursuing the path they have. Despite claims that passengers are desperate for more room it also turns out that, generally speaking, they aren’t usually willing to pay for it.
From the article:
“It’s of more value for an airline to add two rows worth of seats and have a good inflight entertainment system rather than do the opposite and give passengers more legroom,” [Aviation reporter Mary] Kirby told Australian online magazine, Technology Spectator. … “It’s all about distracting the brain from the pain.”
And from the comments section:
For me ticket price is the biggest factor. I figure, I can put up with discomfort for 12-24 hours, if it means that I get to have a couple of weeks of holiday, but if prices are too high, then I’m not going anywhere.
Of course the airlines aren’t listening. They keep cutting legroom, we keep buying tickets. There is no incentive for them to stop it.
Economy class travel is like flying in a coffin these days. I bring my own food and entertainment devices because the airline stuff is terrible, but there isn’t much you can do about the space when all they’re trying to do is upsell you to first/business.
Airlines have found that the majority of people don’t want to pay extra for more room (that’s why there’s less business and first class seats on the plane). It’s an inverse relationship: more seats = lower prices. If the airlines remove a couple of rows of economy (therefore giving everyone some additional leg room), there are less seats to sell and the overall price of the remaining seats goes up. But all those people who judge on price alone, then don’t buy the seats.
So the customers have figured out that the airlines aren’t listening to the complaints, but why should they when the planes are flying more full than ever?
I had a similar discussion with a number of travel writers last week while in Germany for the inaugural Lufthansa 747-8i flight. I made the argument that there is no reason for the airlines to shy away from things like 3-4-3 on the 747 or 3-3-3 on the 787 or even 3-4-3 on the 777. After all, passengers are still buying the seats. Yes, they may complain about the comfort factor. They may even swear off flying that airline again. But when the time comes to buy the next ticket it turns out all those protests were for naught; the fare still is the trump card.
Once fare and schedule are equal the other bits start to come in to play. There is a burgeoning industry of online tools (e.g. RouteHappy) and communities (MilePoint and FlyerTalk are two of the biggest) where passengers can work together to figure out what the best options are for any particular trip. At the same time, however, those conversations are still playing second fiddle to price.
So, while passengers are complaining about the seat comfort the airlines are doing what they can to distract from the pain. And IFE seems to be the way that’s happening. We don’t have to like it, but that definitely is the way the industry in treating the situation.