How Important is Aircraft Type?

Last Updated Aug 11, 2008 10:49 AM EDT

This is actually a pretty interesting question, I think. Exactly how important is the type of aircraft? Conventional wisdom tells me that while I dork out over every type of plane I fly, most people don't care at all. It's all about the product on the inside, right? Boeing says otherwise, but I have a hard time believing it.

Now it's important to take this with a grain of salt. Of course Boeing is going to say this is important, and I'm sure it will be no surprise when they come and tell you that their planes are clearly preferred by passengers. But these are still some interesting numbers.

Boeing gave us a copy of a presentation at NBTA this year and it focused on the Frequent Business Traveler (FBT, in their lingo) flying long haul. Of course, the FBT, who takes at least 5 business trips by air, is a very important segment of traveler, and it would stand to reason that they would be more knowledgeable about the travel experience.

According to this survey, 66% of American FBTs flying long haul in business class care about the plane they're on. That number is lower, 50%, in the UK, and much higher in Japan (73%) and China (86%). But get this. In Economy, it's only 46% in the US, 29% in the UK, 55% in Japan, and a whopping 92% in China. Well, it's at least close to those numbers. There are two slides with the same title that have similar but not identical numbers. Here's the first slide (with the numbers I'm using):

Boeing Aircraft Choice Presentation
That seems like a very large number of people who care about aircraft type. The China numbers are really interesting. I wonder if it's because there used to be so many Soviet types flying around, and they really didn't like those. For whatever reason, they pay very close attention to what kind of plane they're flying on over there.

Again, who knows how valid this survey really is? You would think there would be some merit to it or Boeing wouldn't even bother putting it out, but I personally don't know. What does this mean for an airline? Well, it's tempting to say that customer preference should be a part of the aircraft selection process, but even I think that's relatively silly. It's the product onboard each aircraft that needs to be taken into account. Stick me in a 50 year old first class seat on the newest and coolest plane on earth and I'd still rather fly a new, comfortable seat on an old 707. So, if there's one place to spend your time, it's on the inside.

That's why I have a hard time believing that aircraft type really makes a difference. It's what's on the inside that matters.