Opinion

Why air travel is an exercise in sado-masochism

10 Apr 2017 by Jenny Southan

The recent shocking video of a passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight, has once again focused attention on the relationship between airlines and their passengers.

Dr Clotaire Rapaille is the founder and CEO of marketing and brand positioning company Archetype Discoveries Worldwide. He has written more than 17 books including The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Buy and Live as They Do.

Speaking at the recent Passenger Experience Conference in Hamburg, he shared his views on the way we travel and addressed the peculiar relationship between frequent travellers and what they have to endure.

Dr Rapaille recounted his experience of a flight to Canada when his flight was delayed by nine hours.

“I was asking: ‘Can you give me some information?’ and they said: ‘Just sit down and we’ll tell you when we know.’ I came back and said: ‘Can you at least tell me where the plane is?’ ‘No.’ was the answer, So, after a while I came back and they said: ‘If you come back again we’re going to call security.’”

On a practical level, this led Dr Rapaille to ask, “Why is there not a screen that says the plane is in Atlanta, and then took off and now it’s in Orlando and is coming. How is it we didn’t invent something better? Why do we have to wait in line for hours?”

His revelation was that “It’s an unconscious intention” on the part of the airline”. In other words, “They don’t care.”

Dr Rapaille believes that airlines “…are very good at inventing intellectual alibis to explain: ‘No, you cannot do that because of security.”

On a more philosophical level, Dr Rapaille believes the relationship between airlines and passengers is an abusive one.

“If you are experiencing commercial air travel, you go through all kinds of humiliation and embarrassment before boarding the plane. They have the power. That’s the sadistic attitude. You are hostages. That’s what you feel when you go onto commercial air flights. They own you. They want to torture you. They treat you like a convict, they treat you like you’re completely dumb.”

“In air travel, the number one element of the code is sadomasochism. You have to be a masochist to accept the way they treat you..Of course, it is cheap, usually. But cheap hell is still hell.”

Interestingly, Dr Rapaille believes that not only do airlines not understand what passengers want. Passengers themselves don’t know what they want.

“There are things we do and we don’t know why.”

“When you ask regular people what they want in an airline, don’t believe what they say because people have no idea what they want. When you ask what they want, they tell you: “We want legroom, we want good service, we want good entertainment, we want good food.” So that’s what you concentrate all your work on, right?

“When these people are successful, and have money, what do they do? They take a private jet – where there is no legroom, no service, no food and no entertainment. And they pay a lot of money for that.”

Speaking to an audience of managers working in the aviation industry, Dr Rapaille said, “You already know that boarding the window seats first goes faster, but you don’t do it.”

“We have to change this culture. There is an absolute need for the industry to understand the real needs of their customers. And if people are willing to fly in private jets with no space, to concentrate on more space might not be the solution.”

Instead Dr Rapaille believes that what passengers want is a reset in “the way they are treated.”

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