Why People Don’t Complain About U.S. Discount Airlines

In his latest column, Joel Widzer excuses complaints about major airline carriers as caused by unfair expectations

    When flying a network airline, travelers have grander expectations than they do when they fly a budget carrier. When flying Southwest or JetBlue, people adjust their attitudes to lower expectations. Psychologists call this the expectancy value.

Excuse me? People expect more from Delta than JetBlue? Customer satisfaction surveys of JetBlue are high because JetBlue offers a better coach product than the major carriers.

Seats behind row 9 offer extra legroom, matched only by United’s Economy Plus (which can’t be reserved by everyone) and American’s dwindling More Room Throughout Coach. Anyone can reserve these better seats on JetBlue, and the JetBlue website even recommends these seats. Continental, Delta, Northwest, and USAirways don’t offer any coach seats with legroom to match.

Only discounter Frontier offers similar onboard live television (for a fee, unless you’re elite) and only discounter Airtran offers XM radio.

And Southwest is famous for getting there on-time and not losing luggage. (Both American and Alaska lost bags of mine this year…)

Oh, and JetBlue’s snack basket is far superior to what passes for food on most major airline domestic coach flights.

Joel is living in a different universe if he believes that low cost carriers offer less than the majors, but that people simply attenuate their expectations accordingly.

I still prefer the major carriers because I can generally obtain a first class seat, though domestically the quality of that major airline product has declined markedly. Continental still offers reasonable onboard service, and I love United flying widebodies domestically. But the meals on Northwest, American, and Alaska are poor excuses for what used to pass as snacks in coach back when coach passengers got fed. And the seat pitch in Northwest’s first class section is no better than JetBlue’s standard seats behind row 9.

For the average traveler, many (though not all) discount carriers offer a better product for the same or less money than the major airlines.

Sure, the majors have to compete on price. And they attempt to stem their losses through service cutbacks. But the fundamental difference and competitive advantage of discount airlines is their labor costs, and in particular their work rules.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. A friend of mine was horribly let down by a US low cost carrier’s non-attempts to rescue the situation when they had to cancel a flight. On a standard carrier, one would expect they would try to work out alternate routes, connections, other airlines – at the very least, they would try. With this one? “So sorry. Here’s a ticket for the first flight tomorrow. Now go book yourself a hotel room at your own expense.”

    I’m sure that the onboard experience of the low-costs is at least as good as that of the less good full-costs, but the lack of flexibility and capability when things go wrong can leave you in fairly dire trouble.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *