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I came across a piece in the New York Times titled: How Technology Has Failed to Improve Your Airline Experience. Intrigued, I gave it a read.
Much of it was related to Sunday’s incident, which has been covered extensively. But most of it was a rant against the airlines and how they (in his opinion) use technology in the worst of ways. In his own words:
What we are witnessing is the basest, ugliest form of tech-abetted, bottom-seeking capitalism — one concerned with prices and profits above all else, with little regard for quality of service, for friendliness, or even for the dignity of customers.
I can (sorta) understand the sentiment after this week’s debacle, but on the whole, I disagree with his piece.
Technology (or capitalism) isn’t the issue
Well, yes it is. But not in the way the writer references it. The writer’s main points are:
- The airlines have a model of “brutish” and “bottom feeding” capitalism
- Tech has made the airline industry worse, not better
- Customers blindly go along with reduced service and fewer amenities
- Tech has not “disrupted” the airline industry, causing widespread changes (a la Uber)
I take issue with almost every single point he makes. Let’s walk through some of them.
Airlines are driven by capitalism
The writer pens this like it is a horrible thing. But he misses the point entirely. Yes, amenities on flights are down, services have been cut, and the flying “experience” may not be what it was during the “golden age of flying”. But the writer forgets a whole host of other changes that have been driven by capitalism.
Flying is a whole lot more accessible than it ever was, and to a whole lot more people. Not to mention it is substantially safer than it was in the past. Never before in human history have people been able to travel the globe so freely and so quickly, and for that we should be thankful. Global trade and capitalism have driven this massive expansion in flying. Airlines wouldn’t fly a route if there wasn’t a profit to be made. Demand is what drives airlines. Our demand for travel.
Because people are focused on price, airlines are
The writer penned: “Travel search engines rank airlines based on price rather than friendliness or quality of service.” Well, duh. Price is the single most important factor to the vast bulk of travelers. Fares are ranked by price because, well, that’s what consumers want. If consumers weren’t concerned about price, fares would be marketed differently.
Behind fare and price are (2) schedule and (3) non-stop versus connecting. Both of these are widely available filters when searching for airfare, for obvious reason. The writer remarked:
“Consumers have shown that they’re willing to put up with an awful lot, including lack of legroom, lack of amenities, mediocre or worse customer service, dirty airplanes and more to save money,” Mr. Harteveldt said. “And the airline industry has evolved to meet that desire” for cheap fares.
People complain about airlines a lot. But the airline is simply providing the service for which they are asking. It is capitalism at work. People are voting with their hard-earned dollars.
Low cost airlines continue to grow, for obvious reason. People are willing to put up with a lot if it means saving money. Spirit may be the most hated airline in the country, but people are flying them because they can get a dirt cheap fare. The key is understanding what you are paying for.
How technology has benefited flyers
The writer of the piece failed to neglect the fact that online airfare search engines have made airfares vastly more competitive across the board. The average inflation-adjusted airfare has fallen tremendously in the past decades.
The writer even admits:
…American carriers were improving on some metrics — on-time service is up, baggage loss is down and prices keep getting better.
Tell me again how technology hasn’t benefited flyers? Maybe these improvements aren’t 100% because of tech, but they have certainly been influenced by it. I haven’t had to interact with an airline agent until boarding on my last few flights. Check-in happened from my phone. My boarding pass was scanned from my phone. Multiplied across thousands of passengers per day, this means tons fewer staff.
The writer also completely neglects the on-board technological improvements, namely in-flight WiFi, personal device entertainment, and the like. It’s not like airlines aren’t incorporating the technology people desire. This is like the one area in which I would agree that technology *is* generally lagging.
Yes, there is room for tech expansion in the air industry
I do believe that there is absolutely a place for search engines that rank airlines based on more than simply price. The author mentions the idea of travel search engines that provide rankings for other metrics beyond price and schedule. I think that is great! Some people will certainly use it. Others, myself included, will stick to Google Flights and seeking fares based on price.
That doesn’t mean price is the sole metric in my flight choices. I often filter out Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier from my searches. I know that I typically am not interested in what they have to offer. So…the desired tools are already there. You just need to know how to use them. Adding more interfaces for customer reviews (another suggestion of the writer) sounds great, but would it actually have much of an impact? I can find enough info on most carriers with a few Google searches.
The author misses the mark entirely in this piece. In his rant against the airlines having yet to be “disrupted” by technology, he glosses over all the ways in which technology has actually improved flying. From lower fares to increased safety, improvements in technology have made a world of difference in modern aviation. It’s almost like he wants to see industry disruption for the sake of disruption. He mentioned how Uber is defeating the taxi industry, yet they aren’t exactly a poster child of tech-based companies.
Personally, I am extremely thankful for the low airfares brought about by capitalism and competition, aided by technology. I couldn’t be happier that flying is so attainable for the bulk of the American population.
A couple weeks ago I found $98 one-way tickets from San Francisco to Calgary, which were utterly perfect. I used $200 in Delta gift cards to buy them as part of our upcoming trip to Banff this week (SEE: We’re going to Banff!!). A round-trip ticket was a hair over $200. In 1990, that same fare would have probably cost $400 in today’s dollars. At that price, we wouldn’t be taking this vacation.
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I guess I’m different as a retiree because price is not in my top three. Schedule is the most important followed by nonstop flights. Price comes in 4th but not really much because I always pay the $15 to get early boarding on Southwest. Having no bag fees is in my #3 spot. I dropped Frontier as an Elite tier member years ago because they no longer fit my criteria. Very few nonstop flights from Milwaukee with a pathetic schedule.