The Cruelty of the Airlines’ Customer Experience

Dec 18, 2014

There is no better term than cruelty to explain how airlines have been treating its economy customers and favoring their first class patrons, in order to reduce costs and increase profits.  Much like how the old steamship lines herded the “hoi polloi” into steerage, while lavishing comforts on the occupants of the sumptuous cabins.

How else besides cruelty can one describe shrinking aircraft seat pitches to where they inflict knee pain on taller customers when they are reclined? Or trimming seat widths, which create embarrassment as well as discomfort for larger patrons?  

But Americans are getting bigger while the seats are becoming smaller. Something has to give. And where it gives is on board planes where these issues (and others that minimize personal space) have led to arguments and fights. These incidents are recounted in all too many recent articles, and in Frost & Sullivan consultant Pramod Dibble’s excellent (and well-named) blog on “The Majesty of Air Travel”. In fact his blog points to the air industry de facto acknowledging their cruelty with Airbus’s plans for a virtual reality helmet: the latest such gadget to distract flyers from their pain.

Forget about getting meaningful work done in economy.  Seats are only half the problem. The other half is the behavior of the other passengers.

Naturally, airlines frequently offer customers a chance to buy their way out of their agony by selling extra legroom.  But their behavior is similar in comparison to a notorious street person who  had deliberately played his saxophone badly on New York City subway trains in order to get straphangers to pay him to stop.

Although airlines have been improving their customer service, taking full advantage of proactive notification, speech recognition, and Web self-service solutions, they only mask the harsh realities of air travel.  Sadly, one of the last carriers who offered a decent airborne Customer Experience, JetBlue, is resorting to the way of its competition by shrinking its seat pitches. In this instance, JetBlue could be dooming its brand built on customer comfort. The other airlines can make their customers endure the pain because of their large interconnecting flight networks that JetBlue lacks.

Flying has now been transformed from a perq to a punishment. Employees will look at reasons not to travel, which pleases the finance departments.

What with the near extinction of train travel (thanks in part to the airline and automobile lobbies) the real competition to air carriers now has become Adobe, Bell Canada, BT, Cisco (and Cisco WebEx), Citrix, LogMeIn (, Verizon, and others.  These conferencing solutions have taken some small share from the airlines, but all it takes for them to take off is for several mid-level employees making successful workers’ compensation claims from knee or other injuries while flying on business. Companies will have little choice, if they want to put a lid on these liabilities and on healthcare costs, to end business travel except for C-suite occupants flying first class.

Once the mid-level business traveler who form the bulk of airline corporate customer base leave,  then the air industry as we know it is doomed, just like what happened to the railroads when these individuals began to fly and drive.  Air carriers will cut back on the number of flights to match demand, which especially inconveniences first class business travelers and which may drive them to competitors, including private planes, and telepresence. Air fares will eventually climb to make up for lost revenue, which will prompt cash-strapped families to use Microsoft Skype to see Grandma—after all their offspring are already on video--or drive to their nearest Great Wolf Lodge or Six Flags instead of flying to a Disney resort.

Here’s the rub: airlines need economy customers to fill the planes, like the steamships required steerage class and railroads relied on coach passengers.  There is a limited pool of first class customers.

 It would be a pity if the commercial air transport network were to decline. Flying actually is, or was, a great Customer Experience, as well as a diminishing necessity. Too bad the airlines evident catering to those in front of the plane have cruelly made it uncomfortable, inconvenient, miserable, and expensive for most of us in the back.


Brendan Read


Brendan Read is Senior Industry Analyst with over 25 years’ experience covering business, communications, staffing, and technology. He has worked in, prepared reports, and blogged on a wide range of topics including customer contact, CX, CRM, IoT, social media, supply chain, and BC/DR. He also has backgrounds in construction, manufacturing, materials, resource extraction, site selection, and transportation. He examines the broad economic, environmental, innovation, political, and social mega trends, and their impacts on businesses, markets, and society.

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