The importance of perceptions: thinking about the golden age of flying

There seems to be a lot of grousing about air travel these days, particularly with a flood of recent stories about full-body scanners and more aggressive pat-downs. These complaints raise a question: is flying today more troublesome and less glamorous than in the past? Some experts say today is actually the golden age for flying:

Whether it’s fees, crowded planes, no food or surly service, people will complain about the current state of air travel.

They’ll talk wistfully about the good old days of flying, of a bygone era when a glamorous stewardess delivered white-glove service with a smile, they had meals with real silverware and a courtesy cocktail was offered free on such carriers as Pan Am, TWA, Braniff or Eastern.

The so-called golden age of air travel in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s has passed, they’ll say, just as those airlines have.

But has it? No, say some veteran fliers and industry analysts. With historically affordable fares to nearly everywhere, greater options for service if you’re willing to pay, and new information and entertainment technology, there’s never been a better time to fly, they say.

So some experts that suggest by some objective measures, such as price and service level, flying is now better than it was in the past. But the issue really seems to be whether passengers feel that this is the case. And this is what matters for airlines – if potential customers perceive that flying is difficult and then choose other forms of travel, these perceptions are real indeed.

What could be going on here? A few thoughts:

1. Memories and nostalgia are tricky things. People can romanticize the past and forget the troubles they experienced then.

2. Some of the security procedures instituted after 9/11 seem to irritate people. It adds an extra level of hassle and can make people feel like they are not trusted. On the other hand, there has not been a major airline incident in the US since 9/11.

3. Service and entertainment options may have increased but perhaps passengers expect even more. Does having more entertainment options offset sitting in cramped airplane seats?

4. I would be curious to know how many people actually enjoy flying versus feeling that it is the best, or perhaps only, transportation option to get them where they want to go.

h/t The Infrastructurist

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