Woman sitting on airplane in window seat smiling looking at laptop
April 16, 2024

Expectations Game of Modern Short Haul Passenger Experience

Aisle view inside airplane


The shifting rules of the game of expectations when it comes to the airline passenger experience have evolved at an accelerated speed in recent years, with the pandemic shutdown marking a strong reset point in the relationship between carriers and the people they serve.


It’s a game of wants and needs in many ways, and at one end of the plane passengers have never been able to purchase so much comfort, space, and luxury — at least for long haul.

The situation is very different when it comes to short haul travel, however, and in many ways the expectations that airlines set are more varied.


As an ideal, the modern short haul passenger wants a reasonably priced, conveniently timed flight between easily accessible airports, aboard a safe airplane with comfortable seats, inflight connectivity, onboard power, inflight catering, and a beverage service.


Person standing in front of airplane schedule at airport


In many cases, this is available — but the first criterion, being reasonably priced, is the kicker.

“Reasonable” means many different things to many different people, and it’s safe to say that most passengers don’t travel frequently enough to be able to keep up with the fast-changing airline world and the way that carriers are changing their passenger experience to respond to it.

On shorthaul flights with multiple classes of service, premium economy, business, or even first-class pitfalls around setting expectations still exist.

One carrier’s business class and another’s may be very different, and even the same carrier’s business class product may differ depending on the flight, day, season or simply scheduling of sub-fleets.

Airplane seat photograph looking from one seat towards the window isle


Clear expectations here are complicated for all the operational reasons that industry insiders know. But communicating clearly, being up front about changes, and providing passengers options can really help here. Has the longhaul configuration widebody been downgraded to a shorthaul narrowbody?

Passengers deserve to know as soon as possible and be given their options: continue as booked? Rebook? Reroute? And how will the airline make it up to them?

Setting expectations is particularly necessary as airlines experiment with different types of unbundling and re-bundling of their product, including with the hybridisation of cabins and visible seat product differentiation of multiple sub-classes of service.

Even within economy, seats closer to the front of the plane with slightly more legroom (and perhaps an extra headrest or seat cover) are available, as are exit row and bulkhead seats (which might again look different).

Airline attendant standing in aisle with welcome package to travelers


Fundamentally, no passenger asked for the “economy minus” trend, but lots of passengers will buy an “economy basic” ticket as the cheapest lead-in fare. There are key questions, however, about whether airlines are doing themselves and their passengers a disservice when it comes to the merchandising of these products. There are certainly cases where airlines with strong historical and/or luxury brands are advertising a sort of Champagne-caviar-and-châteaubriand fantasy and offering more of a five-dollar-bottle-of-water reality. There’s nothing wrong with that reality, though, if it’s presented as such.

What does that lead to? Well, even an infrequent traveller might be familiar (and often more comfortable) with a low-cost carrier with a strong reputational brand for charging for anything other than purely the seat. They might reasonably understand a different “basic” definition for that airline than one that likes to market itself as a more premium carrier, but which nevertheless offers a basic economy fare.

This comes back to that expectations game. One of the reasons that low-cost carriers are so popular is that they set frank expectations and are clear about what is and is not included. Ancillary products are often keenly priced, with bundles, club membership type pricing, or cobranded credit cards providing frequent flyers options that increase loyalty and, in many cases, satisfaction — while keeping the product, and the expectations that come with it, simple for infrequent flyers.

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