There are a number of reasons why US airlines’ customer service fell into such disrepute among the American flying public. US airlines have done a lot to climb out of that reputation hole in the last several years, but there is one thing they must acknowledge and appear to be: all domestic flights aren’t the same.
For years, US airlines treated all domestic flights relatively equal, whether it was a 45-90-minute hop or a 5-hour transcontinental flight. No main cabin meal service on all domestic flights. No complimentary beer and wine on all domestic flights. Bag fees, etc., were the same on all domestic flights. No lie-flat business-class seats on any domestic flights.
JetBlue Airways and Virgin America seized on US legacy airlines’ approach in this regard, and won over numerous passengers with a different idea: A flight from New York JFK to Los Angeles or San Francisco was, in essence, an international flight. Those airlines started offering products, whether in economy- or business-class, that were more reflective of what one would expect on a long-haul international flight. (This is one of the challenges facing Alaska Air Group as it evaluates Virgin America’s fleet and product; Alaska simply can’t downgrade Virgin America’s product on transcontinental flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco without risking losing customers.)
Delta Air Lines’ decision to begin including meals at no extra cost for all main cabin seats on 12 transcontinental domestic routes this spring, reversing a longstanding trend of US airlines not including meal service with economy-class tickets on domestic flights, is a major sign that US airlines are finally getting the distinction. Delta will also be offering economy-plus passengers on those routes complimentary beer, wine and spirits.
Absent major gaffes, passengers are generally happy with short-haul flights as long as they arrive safely and on time. But once a flight begins to stretch to four or five hours, the discomforts of air travel become more apparent. It will be interesting to see if other airlines follow Delta in adding main cabin meal service on transcontinental flights. My guess is they will. Offering the same product on an Atlanta to Washington National flight as a Boston to LAX flight just won’t cut it anymore for mainline US carriers, which are now profitable and stable enough to tailor services to given routes.