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Air Passenger Study: Flyers Happy to Pay for Upgrades. Really?

SmarterTravel

For all their copious complaints about tight seating and sketchy service, consumers have proven themselves to be remarkably price-sensitive, willing to forego all manner of niceties to save a buck or two. Proof positive is the reliably robust financial performance of the likes of Southwest and Spirit.

That focus on penny-pinching has to raise questions about one key assumption in that apparent disconnect between their wants and their needs: Do travelers truly care about comfort? And by “truly,” I mean care enough to pay more to attain it.

According to a new study by the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX), airline passengers do indeed place a premium on inflight comfort.

  • 83% of North American flyers rank comfort and ambience as their highest priority
  • Of 10 cabin amenities, legroom was the most important, followed by more comfortable seats and seat width
  • Six in 10 flyers would pay extra to upgrade to extra-legroom seats
  • A significant majority of those who have paid to upgrade to premium economy would do so again

If all the above were true for a majority of travelers, the premium-economy sections of most airlines would be oversold. That’s not the case, however; not by a long shot. In a recent investor’s report, Delta reported that only around 36 percent of its Comfort+ seats were occupied by paying passengers. The airline’s goal for 2018 is to up that percentage, but only to 50 percent. Even two years out, the airline expects fully half of its premium-economy seats to be allocated to elite upgrades and mileage upgrades.

RELATED: JetBlue Cuts Legroom, Doubles Down on Distraction

Two things seem clear. First, travelers genuinely feel aggrieved by the current paucity of inflight comfort. And second, judging from their behavior, those unhappy flyers are mostly too cost-conscious to pay for an upgrade, even an incremental one.

What we apparently have here is a case of either consumer hypocrisy or self-delusion, or some combination of the two.

The APEX study is bullish on the potential for airlines to increase revenue by selling upgrades. It cites approvingly efforts under way at a number of airlines to integrate the sales of upgrades into their operations, including Virgin America’s use of the SeatBoost app to auction upgrades at Las Vegas airport.

All that sounds good in theory. In practice, though, airlines are likely to find that separating flyers from their money is harder than it looks.

Reader Reality Check

Of course you want to fly in more comfort. But are you willing to pay extra for an upgrade?

More from SmarterTravel:

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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