One Simple Insight Why an Airline’s Soft Product Matters

To me business class is always and everywhere about the seat. Sure, I love Singapore Airlines service and pre-order meals. It’s great that I get pajamas in Virgin Australia’s long haul business. But I will always make decisions based on seat first.

Singapore Airlines Laksa

Virgin Australia Pajamas

Food matters to me but I’ll eat prior to flight and at the end of the day it’s rare that you can get as good a meal on a plane as on the ground (that Singapore Airlines laksa notwithstanding, it’s awesome).

I bring my own airline pajamas on long haul flights where the airline doesn’t provide them, because changing into something comfortable during flight makes a difference for rest and relaxation. I’m just as comfortable in pajamas I’ve brought on board than those I’ve been given inflight.

I’ve argued many times that the big Gulf carriers – Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar – have a reputation that far exceeds their product. Emirates packs 10 seats across in coach on their Boeing 777s, and many of their long haul business class seats are angled rather than flat, for instance. But investing in an over-the-top first class product lets them brand as truly premium (even though their Airbus A380 suites are actually quite narrow, 4 across on the upper deck compared to Singapore Airlines with 4 across on the wider lower deck).

Business Class Bar Onboard Emirates Airbus A380

Customers think the Gulf carriers are better than US and European airlines, even though British Airways pioneered the true lie flat seat, United is all flat on long haul international flights from their hubs, and American has what arguably ties for the best business class seat in the world on their Boeing 777-300ER and Airbus A330 aircraft.

American Boeing 777-300ER Business Class

American Boeing 777-300ER Business Class

An airline’s brand influences passenger perception and that’s not just marketing or branding, it’s a sense of small touches and how they’re treated overall by the carrier.

No matter how much US airlines invest in their hard product, they aren’t going to match the service of Asian airlines though they certainly should be able to exceed service levels provided by European ones. For all of the inflight meal improvements on US airlines, they don’t come close to what international carriers offers. And so people believe they’re inferior even when they have as good or better seats. To me that’s nuts, but it seems to be a persistent truth.

[I]n a comprehensive survey of over 60,000 passengers, 30 airlines and 39 hubs, IATA found that passenger opinion of the onboard product is heavily influenced by the airline’s brand.

“One thing that we’re pretty sure is significant is the brand,” Tim Jasper Schaff, Director Marketing and Sales for IATA told attendees at the IATA World Passenger Summit in Hamburg. “We know there are airlines out there that have a much stronger brand than others, and the hard product may not necessarily be different. If a business traveller flies on an airline that doesn’t have a flat-bed in business class, but has a really strong brand, people actually feel great about it.”

What is more, passengers don’t judge cabin products like-to-like.

“If you put the same seat on another airline that doesn’t have a strong brand, then they complain about this [same seat], because they don’t feel good about traveling on that brand. We think there’s a strong influence that may actually override some of the rational emotions of passengers.”

I’ve argued that food matters for purely utilitarian reasons. But I also know how much better I feel about an American Airlines flight in coach when, as an Executive Platinum, I’m offered a complimentary buy on board sandwich.

And United is really on to something starting Saturday where domestic first class customers will be able to choose complimentary buy on board from economy in lieu of the first class meal if they prefer.

It’s not about the $8 – $13, it’s about an airline treating valuable customers as valuable, with respect, and that influences perception of the experience.

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, 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 »

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  1. Gary – I just flew Singapore Suites for the first time and pre-ordered the Laksa, based on your previous recommendation. Great choice!!! It was very tasteful and delicious. Your picture of it in this article makes me wish I could have it for lunch today. Lol

  2. It’s clear to me that Oscar understood this. One of the many reasons it’s a terrible terrible thing that he’s not able to work 🙁

    Get well soon Oscar!

  3. How hard is it to say “I was wrong”? That’s what IATA (and many other people before them) research is unambiguously stating.

    And you’re also wrong about U.S. airlines: they COULD have a top-notch brand-building soft product, but they’re not investing in it, or managing their service people, on the wrong assumption that it doesn’t matter. Instead of adding brand value, their in-flight experience is notable for its brand-destroying through hunger (no food), boredom (no IFE), and lack of human touch (indifferent, surly, or outright belligerent service personnel).

    Nobody in the know is surprised to see that U.S. airlines are having their lunch eaten by the ME3s — based on soft product.

    Now just say it: “I was wrong”.

  4. @Anonymous on the contrary I am saying it is even more important than I have claimed in the past! Though I still will choose an airline based on seat alone, even if other passengers aren’t as analytical in their choices and are easily swayed by branding. I will also evangelize that the seat is the most important thing.

  5. Hopefully American will catch on to this. I’m increasingly close to ditching them on domestics – sick of it being impossible to get a drink, of waiting until after takeoff to have my jacket hung. FAs consistently spend the whole flight in the galley. Hour-plus ground holds with no service. And Delta is more than happy to sell their domestic F for a small premium over AA coach on the domestic routes I fly most.

    For that matter, even being greeted by name seems to be going away on AA. No service standards at all, as far as I can tell.

    As for international business, I agree with you for short-ish overnight flights – hard product wins. But for US-Asia or a day flight, I’ll take angle-flats, good service, and edible food. 14 hours with surly FAs who don’t want to be there is no fun.

  6. Hey Gary I dont know if you have noticed this but in my last 4 trips in different segments on AA a flight attendant have come before take off knowing my name and said: Mr Perez thank you so much for being Executive Platinum with American, we truly appreciate your loyalty.

    It felt very very good! I mean it is a small detail but it makes a lot of difference.

    Have you seen this new trend?

  7. I tend to agree with Gary’s thought process, much of which is based on expectations of the individual traveler. Fortunately I’m not constrained by corporate policy or status chasing (ie I travel for leisure), but never coach.
    Seats are important: will never travel BA Club World and prefer AA Business Class, even the old style angled lie flat is preferable to BA’s offering. Similarly would not travel Business on an EK A380; far prefer the seating environment on their 777’s.
    Food, for me on any airline is simply a diversion – time occupier. As mentioned above it can sometimes be better to eat in the airline lounge pre-departure. Having seen the way meals are packaged and prepared (ie reheated) in flight, including EK First, I’m not excited by in-flight dining.
    Whilst the cabin crew may not be as ‘polished’ as certain European/Asian/ME carriers, on the few AA/UA flights I have flown, service has been fine and in some instances better than British Airways.
    Whilst price plays an important role in deciding which airline to fly (given the opportunity) the soft product is relevant to may travellers.

  8. I don’t see why they can’t improve soft product on American flights. Qantas has a similarly strong union to deal with and is also operating in a high cost market, and their crews in economy provide better service than I’ve been getting on domestic first here in the states. Domestic business on qantas class blows first on AA out of the water.

    The only major difference I can think of is that almost everyone has actually paid (cash or points) to sit up front with qantas. I don’t know what percentage of AA flyers have received a free upgrade, I assume it’s a fair amount.

  9. I think the brand may be more important than the seat because most folks don’t fly enough to know the difference between seats. Even being loyal to AA, I never know what type of seat I’m going to get and usually only do the research after I’ve gotten a horrible seat/aircraft. That is one of my big issues with AA, you never know what you’re going to get for a particular route. Even if you do the research ahead of time, there is a chance they’ll do an equipment swap and you end up with something worse.

  10. I like to make this analogy….when someone is raving about a wine and you finally get to see the label and you want to laugh in their face. It doesn’t matter what their income or status in life or airline FF status, most know very little about wine. Same applies to airlines. Especially foreign ones. Yes, everyone knows about Emirates showers, but when told that the shower is only for 1st Class passengers, they are shocked. When I tell people that Cathay has one of least costly in points, F and J awards, I always hear “Cathay who?”. The European airlines definitely have more name recognition, but the Asian ones, not so much. Except for Malaysia Airlines, I know sad isn’t it?

  11. My worst flight(s) ever were on Emirates. Worst was BKK-HKG (A380 row 2) stuck in cattle class with seats so close that the seat-back hit me in the nose when the passenger reclined. One small drink and never saw the FA again (3 hour flight).

    Second worst was Emirates DXB-DFW (16 hours stuck in A380 cattle again). Seat pitch better (non-Asian flight?) but the worst food I have had on any economy airline.

    However, one of the better flights was MXP-JFK (Emirates A380 Business Class) with a very comfortable bed and great food both in the departure lounge and while airborne.

    Emirates First was a total disappointment. Much prefer Cathay even though only 777ER.

    But my best, extremely fond, memories are of BA Club World 747 Upper Deck from 1999 to 2007 when I flew YVR-LHR-AUH (oops, last leg was 777). Too bad I pay my own way now so those BA YQ fares just make LHR a NO-FLY zone for sure. Have to “suffer” with Cathay instead .

    Thanks for the great article.

  12. I fly mainly for work. For domestic, soft product does not matter nearly enough to make me choose based on that over whichever has the most convenient route and time. You are just not up in the air enough for that to make a big difference. However, for international, the soft product can influence my decision when the price and convenience between airlines is reasonably comparable. For example, for IAD-CDG, if all business class fares are about the same, I will fly AF, just because I like the experience (I don’t mind angled-flat) and like their lounges and food (and they have an arrivals lounge at CDG). But if UA discounts theirs by a few thousand or releases R space, I will fly UA.

  13. I agree that the seat is the most important thing on the plane, followed, I would add, by IFE, and perhaps a bathroom. Everything else is just silly like being called by name or starting your meal with caviar. Enjoyable, I agree, but silly, nevertheless.

    As to the brand recognition — why should airlines be different from any other businesses? Of course, brands matter; rightfully or not, most people love to identify themselves with success and prestige, so what else is new? I’d say this research conclusion was but utterly predictable.

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