Believe It or Not, Airline Passengers Are Happier Than Ever

Flying in 2017 is pretty much the worst. Passengers are violently dragged off planes. Reservations systems break down more often than an ’86 Fiat. Leg room is a distant memory, free food is gone, people are stillreclining in economy, and we’re probably a year away from credit-card readers on the lavatories. So it reasons that passengers would be more dissatisfied than ever, right?

Weirdly, no. If you talk to people who fly often, they think they’re living through a golden age of travel. And in a certain sense, they may be correct.

Those survey mavens J.D. Power and Associates have released the results of their annual airline satisfaction survey. They found that airline passengers are actually the most satisfied they’ve been since the survey began in 2006. The survey weighed seven factors (in order of importance): cost and fees, in-flight services, aircraft, boarding/deplaning/baggage, flight crew, check-in, and reservations. On a 1,000-point scale, overall airline satisfaction was up 30 points from last year, to 756. That figure has been rising steadily -- to three straight record highs -- since 2012.

Why are passengers so much happier? We asked some psychologists, and J.D. Power themselves, to break it down.


Low prices make people happy, no matter what

If you haven’t been paying attention the past couple decades, the cost of airline tickets in inflation-adjusted dollars is a fraction of what it was in the 1990s. J.D. Power’s survey found that airfares dropped again in 2016, down 8.5% to an average of $349. The flying public likes a bargain, and oftentimes is satisfied simply by getting from A to B with a minimal cash outlay.  Because price is the heaviest-weighted factor in the survey, more low fares play a bigger role in overall satisfaction.

“The value of an airline ticket is better in the eye of a passenger,” says Michael Taylor, the Practice Lead for Travel at J.D. Power. “If the price of a flight from New York to San Francisco goes down, people perceive a better value. They might take away a couple inches of legroom in exchange, but people don’t think about that until they’re already on the flight.”

Transparency in pricing makes us actually trust the airlines

Airlines are offsetting these lower fares by charging fees for things that were once included, a practice that plays perfectly into passenger psychology. “We trick our brains into liking the smaller number, then rationalizing that it makes sense to pay fees for other things,” says Dr. Jennifer Gentile, a clinical psychologist with the online care group Live Health Online. “It’s easier for us to stomach small fees than one large amount.”

And in general, people understand that they get what they pay for. “If you buy that basic coach fare, you know if you want more room or more amenities, you’ll be charged accordingly,” says Taylor. Airlines, in their more-dynamic pricing, are doing a better job of satisfying different types of passengers. From a psychological standpoint, Dr. Gentile says, charging a base price and fees actually makes us trust the airlines more.

airport planes

Statistically, bad experiences are very rare

Despite what we see on social -- and traditional -- media, the flying experience really isn’t all that bad. Images of people sleeping in terminals and videos of fights in coach are easier to find because of camera phones. But with more people flying than ever before, statistically the number of unfortunate incidents, including canceled flights and lost luggage, keeps going down.

“We’re programmed to notice the horrible things, whether it’s delays or somebody getting dragged off the plane,” says Dr. Randi Mackintosh, a Tallahassee psychologist who deals with anxiety and depression. “But they’re so few and far between. If you look at how many people are flying each day, almost all are having positive experiences.”

Dr. Mackintosh has noticed that people are consciously making flying more enjoyable, treating it as a short break from reality. “We so rarely get time to just sit. So whether it’s listening to their favorite podcast or downloading a book, if you look at flying that way instead of as something stressful, it’s a lot more satisfying.” And with many airlines offering 500+ movies on demand, it’s a whole lot easier to forget about minimal legroom and $3 bottles of water.

passengers on a plane
Philip Lange/

We have lower expectations... which means less disappointment!

There’s a saying that the secret to a happy life is low expectations. Airlines are doing a better job of managing those expectations, and after more than a decade of new fees and decreased service, the flying public by and large just expects less.

Think about it: When was the last time you were disappointed you didn’t get a meal on a plane? Or were livid when an airline wanted $25 to check a bag? These former affronts have become the norm.

“It plays in line with human resilience,” says Dr. Mackintosh. “If we inherently lower expectations, we might be satisfied rather than expecting it to be great and getting frustrated.” Airlines are winning by under-promising and then delivering (usually). “If it’s not bad, we’re pleasantly surprised.”

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer to Thrillist who would like to see an airline satisfaction survey broken down by height. Follow his cramped-seat adventures on Instagram @meltrez1.