Airline Tickets: A Functional Purchase With Emotional Expectations

A scene from the classic movie Airplane (1980). Screenshot via Movies and Improv

Over the past year I've flown a few different airlines - American Airlines, US Airways and JetBlue. Paradoxically, although I went into the transactions for rational reasons, I evaluated their quality based on emotional ones. In other words, satisfying the lower-level "promise" does not even merit appreciation - only scorn if there is a problem such as lateness, etc.

Reasons For Purchasing Tickets

Here were my criteria for purchasing tickets:
  • Nonstop
  • Lowest purchase price
  • Desired date and time 
They were purchased through a third-party online vendor that we "knew" enough to trust in case there was a problem.

Performance on Functional Criteria

Fortunately none of the airlines disappointed on serious grounds. However, a couple of things were annoying because they felt like broken promises. For example, one airline, claiming the flight was full, almost made us check our luggage without even having an opportunity to put it in an overhead. We also had to deal with an irrational "Zone 1, Zone 2" type system where "preferred" passengers boarded first - it seemed like we were in the millionth "Zone" - an elitist, irrational system since it makes more sense to board the plane from the back forward.

Reaction to Each Airline

The overall experience with each airline left me with a distinctive reaction. Here's what I said as I got off of each plane:
  • "I am never flying American again."
  • "I don't especially like US Airways."
  • "I would only want to fly JetBlue in the future."
What JetBlue Did Right
  1. Generosity: Unlimited drinks and snacks, and good ones yet. I am still recovering from having four packs of TerraBlue chips. And the Dunkin' Donuts coffee was actually drinkable. The crew offered me more, too - versus on US Airways where the person who gave me the drink acted really annoyed.
  2. Entertainment: Choice of TV channels on the plane - flying was fun! We laughed and watched different shows and didn't feel so disconnected from the real world. I didn't even mind the missing wireless.
  3. Jovial Crew: Crew seemed to want to be there - pilot actually stepped out and addressed the passengers jovially. Versus an American stewardess was screaming at us; a US Airways employee looked liked like The Walking Dead and spoke just as enthusiastically.
  4. Helpfulness: Crew went out of their way to help rather than be annoying - when someone's bag was bigger than its overhead spot, two of them got up and shoved it in there instead of making her check it.
  5. Welcoming Environment: Their signs were happy. I like the bubbly blue and white. The US Airways waiting area was completely depressing. I can't remember anything about American.
  6. Consideration: There were tons of plugs around in the airport to charge up. Their brochure offered a "never used" pillow - they get the germ factor. They had headphones available for a nominal fee.
  7. Communication: When the heating and cooling malfunctioned they kept telling us they knew something was wrong and they were going to fix it. And when I tweeted my appreciation for the great flight, they actually tweeted back a "Thank You."
Wish List

Here's what I wish every airline would offer included with the price of a ticket:
  1. Expedited TSA check-in: This is not universally available but it would be fantastic for members of points programs to be able to apply with the fee waived (assuming they were not a security risk).
  2. Connectivity: Free wi-fi on and off the plane.
  3. POINTS. Honestly, no matter how hard I try, I cannot figure out these points systems - how much you earn, how much you get, and no matter who I talk to they can't seem to figure it out either. 
The paradox of rational purchase versus emotional expectations has wider applicability than airlines. Logically, people will try to pay as little as possible for a maximally useful product. But they are influenced along the way by the quality of the purchase experience. Part of branding is making the purchase experience so smooth and enjoyable that you will gladly go back, even if it costs a little more, to avoid the pain of the hassle associated with the cheaper provider.