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Airfare: 'One of the Great Bargains for American Consumers'?

In an interview with CNBC earlier this week, Delta CEO Richard Anderson articulated the rosy view subscribed to by most economists and airline executives. Referring to the state of the airline industry, Anderson had this to say: "It's a very competitive market. So airfares are going to be determined by normal supply and demand and competitive factors in the market. If you look at true airfare including fees over the last decade adjusted for inflation, it is still one of the great bargains for American consumers."

One of the Great Bargains for American Consumers

Indeed, if you look at the price travelers pay for every mile they fly, year over year, and adjust for inflation, the overall trend is a slow, steady decrease in airfares. That's indisputable.

But if you asked a hundred Americans (excluding economists and airline execs, please) to nominate their picks for the August title of "Great Bargain," I suspect that air travel wouldn't make a single appearance on the list.

There's a jarring disconnect between the truth as perceived by number-crunchers and the truth as perceived by consumers.

If airfare is indeed more affordable, why doesn't it feel like a bargain?

Value is a relationship between what you pay and what you get. And a bargain is when you get more than you pay for. When it comes to air travel, most consumers feel they're getting less than they pay for. Yes, the price is cheap; but the product, air transportation, is worth even less.

As prices have edged down, the hassle factor has soared. With fuller flights and tighter seating, the discomfort level has increased more than prices have decreased. Loyalty programs have been gutted. And so on.

It's not uncommon for economists' and consumers' views to diverge. It's worrisome, however, when a company CEO's views are so radically out of alignment with the views of his customers'. Even as flyers stew in their crusher seats, Anderson thinks everything's hunky-dory. That's a recipe for more of the same.

As things stand, air travel is anything but a bargain. And that won't change until Anderson and his cohorts adopt a more consumer-centric view of the real value delivered by their airlines.

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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