Why airlines are the most talked about industry in the world
Worldwide passenger numbers have risen exponentially from 310 million in 1970 to 3.6 billion last year
What is it about airlines that evokes such strong emotions and makes them more talked about than any other business?
The latest airline company to hit the eye of the storm is British Airways, which had a massive computer systems failure resulting in tens of thousands of passengers being stranded in airports.
This was no natural disaster but a self-inflicted meltdown exacerbated, yet again, by the company’s chief executive, following an unfortunate pattern established by United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz.
As passengers were venting their fury, BA’s Alex Cruz chose to emerge in a room festooned with computers wearing a baggage-handler style high visibility jacket reinforcing the message that somehow inanimate computers were to blame while offering little comfort to his dissatisfied customers. He was eventually given a better script as the chaos grew.
The scandal at United in the wake of its brutal ejection of a passenger last April put BA’s problems into perspective but no airline misstep seems to be too small to attract attention that is out of all proportion to the event itself. A case in point being Emirates self-inflicted stupidity by insisting that its Taiwanese cabin staff should wear badges identifying themselves as coming from the People’s Republic of China.
Meanwhile in Hong Kong, a very good way of attracting lavish social media attention is to discuss the shortcomings of Cathay Pacific. It can be anything from delays to poor food quality but whatever it is it is guaranteed to get a large audience and attract plenty of feedback.
Why is this so? Far more people use buses and trains and other forms of transport everyday of the week but these businesses are subject to nothing like the media spotlight that shines on airline companies.
I guess, and it really is no more than a guess, that the answer lies precisely in the mundane nature of other forms of transportation. Sure, they face widespread criticism when something goes wrong but complaining about these services lacks much of the passion devoted to the airline industry. Maybe expectations are lower in mundane transport land.
Then again the average mass public transportation system does not try to sell itself with promises of glamour, excitement or even romance that feature in airline promotions.
Set against these visions is the reality, especially back in cattle class where things are far from being romantic. A cramped seat, a loudly crying child and maybe, if you are lucky, a plastic container filled with congealed food is not the stuff that dreams are made of.
Yet economy class passengers can aspire to moving further forward in the cabin and they can dream of the delights that await them if they make it.
Even if they don’t get to the front there is still something about flying that other forms of transportation can’t quite match. For a start getting on an airplane remains out of reach of most people on the planet. This is despite the fact that the world’s airlines carried 3.6 billion passengers last year; many of them are repeat passengers so the number of individuals who had a flight experience is not represented by this figure.
Yet the number of passengers has risen exponentially over the years from just 310 million worldwide in 1970 to where we are now. Getting on a plane used to be a very big deal and it remains a singular experience, particularly for new passengers. Therefore expectations are higher than for other forms of transportation.
Competition is also more intense, producing two distinctive results for customers; at one end of the spectrum it means more crowded cabins and in-flight services cut to the bone while at the other end it produces ever-fancier premium services for those willing to pay more. Airlines seem to think that their passengers have not noticed this dichotomy but of course they have and they express their unhappiness in predictable ways.
Although airline companies moan and groan about the harsh competitive environment, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported that last year yielded the highest profits ever for the airline industry. Inevitably the largesse was not evenly spread as some airlines had a dire time. The very survival of Alitalia, for example, is in doubt, while Hong Kong’s Cathay suffered a dramatic loss. However, the business as a whole is getting back on its feet, despite numerous stumbles.
Maybe the day will come when getting on a plane is much like getting on a bus and the passengers will either be so content as to remain mute, or more likely will have cause to grumble. This relatively regular airline user will however not be happy because like many others I want airline travel to be special and that’s why we pay so much attention to this flying business.
Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster