Why We Stay Loyal To Airline Brands (And Why We Sometimes Shouldn’t)

Why do we stay loyal to airline brands? I guess that depends on how you define loyalty. For points and miles people, their first reaction may be to think about loyalty programs. Now, I’ve argued that these programs aren’t really about loyalty anymore and more about incentivizing you to change your current habits.

I’m not talking about this type of loyalty. I’m simply asking why do we to stick with a particular company. I’d bet that you have a go-to airline that, all other things being equal, you’ll book first. Now, if that’s because you’re a part of the loyalty program and need to keep your status, maybe it’s time to hop off that hamster wheel.

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If you’re hub captive to an airline, you really don’t have a choice. If you’re from Atlanta, you’re more often than not going to fly Delta. Same goes for those who fly from Washington-Dulles on United. You’re not loyal because you want to be, but more because you have to be. Choosing not to would be to your own detriment.

But why do other people choose and then stick with a brand? It’s because they feel content with the product which they’re receiving. But could they be wrong? Is the product offered by that company much better than what’s offered by its competitors.

I was reminded of this when reading an article by Kyle on Live and Let’s Fly titled “SOME SOUTHWEST AIRLINES CUSTOMERS BLIND TO SHORTCOMINGS”. It’s an interesting read and I suggest you check it out.

In summary, he makes the case that people are loyal to Southwest because they’re overvaluing the supposed perks like free checked bags and don’t realize what they’re missing by not flying on other airlines.

I don’t hate Southwest, I actually rather like the airline – my wife has Companion Pass and we are flying them next week. But we know that we are flying them for specific reasons, we aren’t blinded by the free bag benefits. Some of their customers should realize that they are leaving a lot on the table for a benefit that they may or may not fully utilize and are likely paying a premium to receive.

While I agreed with many of the points of the article, I think he misses the point about why people like Southwest.

It’s not because they factor the value of two free checked bags per ticket into a price calculation when making a reservation. People also aren’t taking into consideration that while almost all seats on Southwest have the same seat pitch, frequent travelers with status on other airlines get seats with even more legroom.

People like Southwest because they don’t have to think about checked bag fees or seat assignments. That’s part of the appeal. You don’t need to pay extra just to not sit in a middle seat in the back of the plane. If you buy some souvenirs when on vacation, you can check that extra bag and not pay $35 to $50. It’s not the actual value people receive that makes them book Southwest, it’s the perceived value they’re getting that’s important.

Southwest promises a product and delivers on that promise. They say their fares have “Transfarency”

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It’s amazing how much people like getting what they expect. Note that Southwest isn’t promising to have the lowest fare. Just that when you find a fare with them, that will actually be the fare.

What some pundits can’t believe is that people other than leisure travelers find that appealing. Many business travelers will book Southwest flights even when they could possibly get better treatment if they switched their loyalty to another airline. Why?

Because they feel they’re being treated fairly. This makes them stick with Southwest when they could possibly do better with someone else.

When Do People Change Loyalties?

If we have an idea of why people stay loyal, then we can figure out why people stop being loyal.

We’ve seen several examples in recent months where former airline loyalists have sworn off being blindly loyal. Such as Ben from One Mile at a Time:

All else being equal, I’m choosing to fly other airlines over American.

However, for some trips it’s just not feasible to fly another airline. What am I going to do, turn a one hour nonstop flight from Miami to the Caribbean into a six hour journey via Atlanta?

So I’m flying American only when they’re absolutely the best option by a long shot. And when I say “by a long shot,” I mean factoring in that the flight may very well be delayed by a couple of hours.

But unfortunately when you’re based in Miami, that’s still a lot of trips where they’re the best option.

The same thing has happened with Ed from Pizza in Motion and his relationship with United Airlines:

Time will tell if this changes my behavior.  Ultimately, I think it’s death by a thousand cuts when it comes to my relationship with United.  The irrational loyalty that we saw so frequently 10 years ago in the airline industry has eroded.  United is still likely to get the lion’s share of my business because of their nonstop presence out of IAD.  That’s unfortunate since I don’t think they do anything else to earn my business (just take a look at their Wi-Fi stats over the course of the year).

When you have top tier status holders questioning if that loyalty is worth it, there’s a problem. What happened?

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This is the look we all have inside when a company we felt we had an inseparable bond with goes and destroys that trust. We might think it’s a one-time thing and go back to them again. But then it happens again, and again, and again.

Finally, you realize that there is no trust. There is no bond and no need for you to be loyal anymore. Sure, you might still use their services when it suits you but it’s not because of any expectation of special treatment. It’s just the best choice at the time even realizing that you’re setting yourself up for more disappointment.

You may switch your loyalty to someone else or you just might decide it’s kinda nice to be disloyal (BTW, it is pretty awesome IMHO).

Final Thoughts

There are reasons we stay loyal to an airline and reasons that we’ll stop being loyal. Both of them depend on trust or lack of trust with that company. Whatever we expect from the airline will be delivered. Whether that’s a consistent level of customer service and dependability or a certain treatment for being a loyal customer doesn’t matter. Delivering on that promise will lead to developing loyal customers and breaching that trust will cause your loyal customers to defect to the competition.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

 

3 thoughts on “Why We Stay Loyal To Airline Brands (And Why We Sometimes Shouldn’t)”

  1. Solid piece. It’s what we expect being delivered that builds and sustains loyalty, whatever that “expected benefit” is.

    Where the US “Big 3” (and others) are going wrong in the long run is by removing the perceived value and thus putting low cost carriers into the same “consideration set” of customers. By making the benefits for even the most loyal customers essentially just coupons, they are allowing those customers to compare the price/benefits of every other airline. Then, once the loyalty airline makes a mistake (which is inevitable as all humans/systems are fallible), customers immediately have a universe of options to switch to.

    Customers who do the math are of course in better shape, but that’s with any service provider (bank, internet provider, wireless service, etc). Once it’s only about price to the company then it’s only about price to the customer. And price has no loyalty.

  2. Another nice thing about Southwest, although only relevant to a few, is that they actually give pre-board enough time to get settled before the next group boards. Most other domestic airlines, the next group is right on your heels.,

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