Are US Airlines Worse Than European Airlines? This Chart Won’t Tell You.

A couple of days ago I wrote that we, the traveling public, have conclusively demonstrated that we care about nothing but price. This is one reason air travel has become progressively more awful. Steve Randy Waldman is sick and tired of people like me saying things like this:

There are two things wrong with this line that air travel is awful because consumers’ true revealed preference is that it should be awful and cheap. First, there is the fact that air travel managed by the main domestic carriers in the United States is uniquely awful, and there is no evidence that US travelers are any more price conscious than consumers in other countries. No frills, discount air travel is popular in Europe as well, and it is sometimes awful, but it is on the whole much cheaper than “discount” air travel within the US. Mainstream carriers almost everywhere else in the developed world are notably less awful than the big American carriers, and often just as cheap.

When I was writing my post, this was actually at the top of my mind. Is American air travel really uniquely awful? The problem is not just that I couldn’t think of any data to bring to bear on this question, I couldn’t even think of any anecdotal data that would be meaningful. It’s true that I hear griping about American carriers a lot more than I do about European carriers, but then, living in California I would, wouldn’t I? Complaint rates might be germane, but should that be per flight or per 100,000 miles or what? And are fares really the same or lower than in the US? That’s hard to say, since Europe is simply a different environment: different regulators, shorter distances, more concentrated population centers, real competition from trains, etc. Nor do I know how subsidies play out among various countries.

The bottom line is that this would take some very careful research indeed. However, if you absolutely insist, I just spent the past few minutes doing some un-careful research. All I can say about it is that I promise I didn’t cherry pick. For the US, I chose the four biggest airlines. For Europe, I chose four representative big airlines, and I chose them before I looked at the data:

US data is for March 2017 here. European airline data is for Q1 2016 from Britain’s CAA here. For Europe, this is not continent-wide data. It’s only for complaints filed in the UK.1

I have absolutely no idea if these numbers are really comparable. Do Americans simply complain less than Brits? (Seems unlikely.) Is it easier to complain in Britain? Are “enplanements” (US) the same as “passengers” (Europe)? Or do European airlines really suck way worse than US airlines?

I don’t know, and you shouldn’t assume this chart tells you. Still, it definitely doesn’t suggest that US airlines are uniquely awful. The bottom line is that we need real research to come to any conclusions here. If I’m bored this weekend, maybe I’ll look for some.2

1One thing you can’t do is use US data to compare domestic and international carriers. The international carriers are flying exclusively international flights into the US, and the rules and flying experiences are very different for domestic and international flights. One way or another, you have to use local data so that you get a roughly comparable split of domestic and international flights for all carriers.

2But probably not. I’ve got other work to do.