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Airlines Mistreat Us, and We Keep Coming Back for More

In the wake of numerous recent incidents of airline misfeasance — most memorably, the forcible expulsion of a bloodied doctor from a United flight — the following question naturally arose among industry analysts: Would such high-profile service breakdowns hurt the airlines’ bottom lines?

The common-sense answer was “Yes.” How could traveler consumers remain unaffected by such malicious behavior? Surely travelers would book away from airlines that treated their passengers with such callous disregard, depriving those carriers of measurable revenue, and sinking their profits.

That notion of a linkage between a company’s treatment of its customers and its financial performance is bolstered by a fundamental sense of justice. Just as we expect individuals and companies that do right to also do well, so do we expect wrongdoers to do badly.

In United’s case, those expectations were subverted when the airline announced its financial results for the 2nd quarter, a period which included the doctor-dragging debacle and calls to boycott United. The airline reported a $818 million profit, up 39 percent year-over-year, and an increase in sales as well. If there was a negative financial effect from United’s misdeeds, it was too small to measure.

The indifference with which travelers react to airlines’ misconduct was again highlighted in the results of a study just released by GO, an international airport transportation provider. In response to the question, “Will the recent airport and airline incidents affect your air travel plans this summer?”, a mere 0.7 percent (seven-tenths of one percent) planned to cancel their flights. And, in response to the question, “Have the incidents caused you to switch your preferred airline to one with fewer incidents?”, 7.8 percent answered in the affirmative, while 77.2 percent were “No”‘s and 14.8 percent weren’t sure.

This isn’t a case of travelers’ turning the other cheek. Rather, it’s a combination of consumers’ relentless focus on price and the lack of choices due industry consolidation. Until travel consumers are willing to pay more to reward the industry’s good actors, the bad actors will not just survive, they’ll flourish.

Reader Reality Check

True or false: Air travelers are getting exactly what they deserve?

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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