Starting a few months ago, airline scandals started to populate our news feeds. The United passenger removal is the most notorious, but the event created a micro-genre of the meme economy: outrage at the incompetence and poor service of various airlines.

This outrage is nothing new, but the immediacy of the internet and social media brought each new offense into the public consciousness. The events have been spread out across multiple airlines – seemingly every single one, in fact. However, this hasn’t resulted in customer service or value improvements that you might have hoped for, with a couple of notable exceptions.

Airlines that have avoided the scourge of scandal have capitalized on the opportunity. Frequent-flyer programs like Southwest Airlines or Canada’s Aeroplan offer significant signup bonuses that are sure to save you a pretty penny when booking a flight etc.

Airlines recovering from scandal, however, are not greatly motivated to improve services following public scandals for a variety of reasons.

  • Brand Loyalty – Among most travelers, there is not a great deal of brand loyalty, airline to airline. Passengers are more motivated by price at the time of ticket purchase than by any other factor. As scandals have become more ubiquitous, among seemingly all commercial airline companies, the distinction between airline competitors is obscured. It seems all an airline has to do is offer savings, and ticket sales will improve.
  • Lack of Consumer Options. Even though there is competition in the airline space, a consumer can be only so choosy. With only a handful of airlines available at the consumer’s price point at a single airline, the options are limited. Even if a consumer is angry with one or two airlines, they still need air travel to get to their destination. This motivates most consumers to bury the hatchet and go with an airline that will get them where they need to go, according to the price considerations mentioned above.
  • Airline Margins are Tight. At the end of the day, an airline can’t simply slash prices to recover lost consumer goodwill. Flying is expensive. Airlines like United that have significant negative media attention are already suffering immediate losses in the short term. From a corporate standpoint, it can be much better to just wait out the media storm for passengers to return, rather than doubling losses by offering discounts that eliminate the slim profits the airlines already have to deal with.

At the end of the day, air travel is a remarkable industry that has inconveniences and inefficiencies baked in. As always, the best way to find a cheap ticket is to look for it well ahead of time.

It’s also important to remember that major problems while traveling by air are infrequent. Sure, we all know someone who has had misplaced luggage or who had a flight cancelled due to mechanical delay. These problems are baked into the system and will not result in reliable savings. Consumers are best served when they use the tools available to them to locate cheap tickets many months in advance of their travel date.

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