Aesthetics and economics in the commoditization of the airline industry


Following up on my earlier story on the merging of Continental and United airlines (read it here), this is another example of the painful evolution of the legacy companies in the American commercial airline industry.

Although the experience of commercial air travel has become something that many dread (thanks to nudie-scanners, cramped conditions, over-bookings, and all of the residual unhappiness that those conditions bring to the employees and the customers) the fact remains that it is the the best, safest, fastest most economical way to travel long distances. Yet air travel has come to epitomize the slippery slope that is faster, better cheaper.

In other words, for an industry to be faster, better, and cheaper by definition puts it in very unstable market conditions, driving the entire market-space to continuously optimize on these three distinct, and in many ways orthogonal, attributes.

The linked article above describes that fact that in almost all cases (oh Southwest, you are always the outlier proving these arguments wrong) airlines are cutting cost by using simpler paint jobs on their aircraft:

“This is a business where economics determine long-term success,” said Tim Mapes, Delta’s head of marketing. “Not without coincidence, the airlines that employed the more colorful liveries no longer exist.”

In fact, American Airlines, the last legacy airline to declare bankruptcy (like that is something to be proud of), continues to go with the "unpainted shiny aluminum" look:

American estimates that it saves $12 million a year in fuel by not painting its planes

As is typical arguments in this great recession, all metrics are equal, except cost is most important. This is a typical argument for cutting corners on aesthetics, and I would think it should be typical of an industry transitioning from ideas of romance and individualism and adventure to an industry that is basically a commodity.

Yet all commercial airlines look the same because sometime in the mid-twentieth century, Boeing pioneered the 707, an elegant design in that it creates "the greatest output performance for the least input" (Leff 1997), and so the aesthetics of commercial airlines remains the same, and will continue to look the same for the foreseeable future.

Thus, airlines aesthetically differentiate themselves via their "paint jobs". And with the need to cut costs in order to remain competitive, they have become economically rewarded by forgoing that aspect of branding. So maybe the big airlines should concentrate on something else, like figuring out how to make the passengers "enjoy" flying again. If JetBlue, Virgin America and SouthWest can do it, why do we continue to hold the legacy airlines to lower standards?


Air France aircraft, ready to depart for Paris with good food and drink on board, no doubt (Amsterdam, 2011)

Tangential thought for future discussion

[ If the auto industry became almost exclusively driven by costs (both purchase price and cost to drive), automakers would focus much less on style and other emotionally engaging attributes, because the market would reflect that cost was overwhelmingly important to the customer. Cars would lose their romance and individualism and become a commodity. Ironically, when automakers focus on efficiency to increase miles per galloon and reduce operations costs, cars end up looking more and more alike because they are being aerodynamically optimized (yes you Prius, Volt, Insight, EV-1), and therefore they are relentlessly made fun of as being effeminate. Watch The Other Guys and "aim for the bushes" for a culturally relevant timely example. ]