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Survey shows ups and downs of air travel


KUALA LUMPUR — Leading global market intelligence firm Synovate, today released global survey results on airline travel showing 56% of people choose ’getting there quickly and easily’ as the best thing about air travel and, once on board, three quarters would like to be able to change seats if they were unhappy with their allocation.

Synovate spoke with more than 10,000 respondents in 13 markets across the world to find all about whether air travel was pleasure or pain, the impact of fuel costs and surcharges, easy-on-the-eye flight attendants, the frustrations of sitting near other people’s children and chatty fellow passengers.

Transactional travel or sky-high service?

Synovate quizzed people who had travelled by air about the one thing they best liked about being on a plane. For the majority, it’s all about getting from point A to point B, with 56% choosing ’It’s fast and it gets me where I need to be quickly’ as the thing they most like about air travel. The highest score for this attribute was from people in the United States (US), with 84% agreeing.

Sheri Lambert, Senior Vice President of Travel & Leisure for Synovate, said it was absolutely critical for air travel to be convenient.

"Air travel in the US is largely transactional. It’s about getting where you are going with as little fuss as possible. This is mainly because the scale of the American air system is enormous and so many people travel for work or business that it’s nearly as common as taking a bus.

“The whole travel process has to be efficient or people start to reconsider whether the trip is even worth it – not a mindset the airlines want to encourage,” she said.

At the other end of the scale, 42% of Egyptians said their greatest pleasure when it comes to flying is ’being served’.

Synovate’s Managing Director for Egypt, Tamer El Naggar, said: “Air travel is a big thing for Egyptians and the prestige associated with it becomes an expectation. Getting on board an airplane and being looked after is a very much sought-after luxury.”

The seat of power

Much of what the survey highlighted was that the seat is the ’make or break’ factor when it comes to flying pleasure or pain. Some findings:

* Two thirds of all respondents who had travelled by air disagreed with the statement ’I have no preference when it comes to seating’ – the least fussy were the Filipinos (64% agreed) and the most particular were the Thais (89% disagreed).
* Forty-one percent say they are ’really fussy about my seat and a bad one can ruin my flight experience’.
* Three quarters say ’I would like to have an option which allowed me to change seats if I was unhappy’.

A massive 89% of Taiwanese, 87% of Americans, 84% of Thais and 83% of UK travellers agreed they would appreciate a seat swap if they were less than thrilled with where they were asked to park their posteriors.

Sheri Lambert said this would be bedlam for the airlines. "It’s one thing to not like your seat when you are on a short 45-minute flight. Most of us can deal with that. But it’s entirely another thing when you are cramped and miserable across the US or travelling even farther afield.

"In an ideal world, travellers would always get to select their first choice seat prior to departure. That is tough though, especially given current flight loads.

"While large-scale programmes like this are challenging, it does point to the role of options for passengers choosing seats ahead of departure and informative websites like

“Indeed, some US carriers have experimented with seat surcharges for those who prefer certain placements, but the jury is still out on this one,” she said.

And it’s not always obvious things that drive the likes and dislikes of nationalities. Some of the Thai respondents’ trepidation about seating can be attributed to culture, says Synovate’s Managing Director for Thailand, Steven Britton.

“One of the things you are taught in Thailand – and is reinforced all the time when you are growing up – is that you should not step over people. Thais will do nearly anything to avoid this. Airline seats are so tightly packed together in economy that a Thai stuck in a window seat would probably refrain from visiting the bathroom for hours rather than step over several people.”

Up in the air about intimacy

Very much related to the seat issue is who you sit next to. Scott Lee, Executive Director of Synovate in Hong Kong, said the crux of the issue here for most people is the forced intimacy.

“Sharing your personal space with strangers is not something that many people look forward to. Still, air travellers in some markets seem quite ok with it – perhaps even relishing the chance to meet new people – while people in other markets like Hong Kong seem to want to shut down and avoid others.”

The study asked people to agree or disagree with a series of statements, one of which was ’I prefer sitting next to someone of my own sex’. Overall, a little over one third of respondents agreed with this (34%). The highest agrees were from Hong Kong (65%), Malaysia (57%) and Thailand (53%).

When this is broken down by gender, women are far more likely to answer in the affirmative than men. Forty-four percent of all women travellers say they want to sit next to someone of their own gender, while only 24% of men do. In Hong Kong, 78% of women want to sit next to another woman.

“There are a couple of factors at work here. One may be awkwardness between men and women – in some markets sexual tension, and in others, related to religion – plus it must be said that men seem to always take the arm rest and as much leg room as possible... often without thinking about it. No wonder women want to avoid us,” Mr Lee said.

But not everyone avoids social contact. The study also asked whether respondents agreed with the statement ’I enjoy making conversation with the people sitting next to me’ and, overall, 57% agree. People from Malaysia and the Philippines most like a chat (77% and 74% respectively) and those from Thailand (60% disagreed), Taiwan (58%) and Hong Kong (57%) do not.

Children shouldn’t be seen, or heard

It turns out not everyone hates sitting near children. In good news for paranoid parents, two thirds of our air traveller respondents disagreed with the statement ’I get frustrated when sitting next to or near children’.

However, Britons were found to be most intolerant of children on planes with 55% agreeing they find sitting near the smallest travellers to be frustrating. They were closely followed by Hong Kongers (52% agreed). Least likely to get frustrated were German travellers with only 15% agreeing.

Looking at the results by gender, it is not too surprising to see that overall women are far more tolerant of air-borne kids. However, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), 48% of women agreed they find sitting near children frustrating and only 24% of men did.

George Christodoulides, Managing Director of Synovate in the UAE, said this may, in part, be due to large families and gender roles.

“When it comes to supervising children men tend to be fairly hands-off, while women travellers may be so busy empathising with harassed mothers that they are not really able to relax themselves.”

Air travel to nose dive?

Will people even get on planes in the current economic environment? Across the markets surveyed, Synovate asked air travellers to choose one answer that best summed up the effect of fuel surcharges and increased costs of air travel for their situation. The study was conducted in July and, in cautiously good news for airlines, the highest overall answer was 39% who said ’I would consider looking for airlines offering cheaper flights’. This was the highest in Brazil at 62%, followed by Canada and the United Kingdom (UK) at 48%.

Synovate’s CEO for the UK, Michelle Norman, said people are not necessarily curtailing their travel plans, but they are bargain-hunting on prices.

"There was strong demand for budget carriers over the summer – people have not been willing to cancel their summer breaks. Budget airlines are a well-established means of travel in the UK, plus domestic holidays have the reputation of being rather expensive.

“The true test for the airlines – and the sustainability of their passenger loads – is about to come though. With a rocky economy and the traditionally slower winter period approaching, we may see some carriers running a little emptier and suspending some routes,” she said.

Eighteen percent of Thais, 17% of Germans and 16% of Britons and Americans said they would now consider alternative modes of transport for their travel.

“As people ponder planes, trains or automobiles, we need to also realise the impact of all the talk of carbon footprints. Certainly in Germany and the UK, there has been huge publicity about this and how other means of transport like trains may be better for the environment,” Ms Norman said.

How can an airline fly high?

Pleasing people is tough. Pleasing people at 30,000 feet is even tougher. So how does an airline stand out?

Scott Lee says brand positioning is critical to loyalty, but the basics have to be in place first. "Before anything else, an airline needs to treat people like human beings and quickly, efficiently and safely get them to where they are going. It’s certainly not rocket science but some carriers are not always able to deliver on this.

"One thing that stood out in this survey was that in markets where the national carrier was strong on service and reputation, places like Dubai, Hong Kong and Thailand, people had higher expectations. They expect more because they get more.

“These carriers are then able to build the emotional connection that creates committed loyalty. There are people in Hong Kong who will do just about anything to take all their flights on a particular airline, describing themselves as ’emotionally dependent’. The bond is strong, they feel secure, and that’s what carriers should work towards,” he said.


* Only 4% of all people across the markets surveyed nominated airline food as their favourite part of flying. However, it doesn’t matter if it’s the chicken or the fish for 12% of Filipinos and 11% of people from the UAE, who look forward to tucking in whenever they get on board.
* Hong Kongers are most likely to have laptops out in-flight, with 11% saying the chance to get some work done without interruption is what they like best about air travel.
* Plane and seat design are critical to passenger satisfaction. Sixty-three percent of air travellers say they prefer window seats... tricky to keep everyone happy!
* Coffee, tea or me? Only three percent of air travellers in the markets surveyed said the thing they most liked about flying was ’attractive flight attendants’. However, Synovate’s focus group experience is that, once mid-conversation, a large proportion of people rather sheepishly admit this is an important part of the in-flight experience... perhaps something people will admit to face-to-face only!


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