Why Steve Jobs Didn’t Try to Revolutionize the Airline Industry

When Apple introduced the iPod and the iTunes store it effectively brought a la carte pricing to the music industry. If you liked just one song by an artist, you could buy just that one song for $1 – you didn’t have to buy an album with 12 songs for $12 just to get that one song you wanted.

And the world rejoiced. And Apple became wealthier than Exxon, not to mention several small nations.

Cable television consumers clamor for a la carte pricing so that they can buy just the channels they want, presumably at a lower monthly cost than what they pay to have access to hundreds of channels they never watch.

So why is it that travelers feel nickeled and dimed to death by the airline industry’s a la carte pricing model – as evidenced once again in this thread where TripAdvisor members bemoan Swiss Air’s new option giving passengers the option to pay extra if they want a specific seat?

…the airlines just keep dropping another notch in customer service ~abi1234

Fortunately, in the 21st century, we can do more work electronically, with less need for physical meetings & travel.


Unfortunately, vacations/leisure and air travel are becoming more of an oxymoron. ~EarthlingOnline

It isn’t surprising or difficult to find a travel discussion about a la carte pricing in which travelers voice their frustrations about the practice. What is interesting about this thread is the repeated and thoughtful attempts by some to explain/defend the pricing model, and a sincere effort by others to explain what it is about the model that they find frustrating:

Well people can always pay more, and get more. It’s all out there and available. The issue is people go for the cheapest they can’t find and want everything thrown in. Can’t have it both ways, either pay for it and get it, or don’t pay and don’t get it. ~froggyEngland

To which DouglasDC8 replies:

I think the issue is that the cheapest used to include more and now it doesn’t. On airlines like Swiss and Lufthansa and BA for example the cheapest fares used to include seat allocation before check in. Now they don’t. There may be good reasons why airlines are doing this, but for many it is a reduction on what they got before for the lowest fares.

The discussion goes back-and-forth, but ultimately I think it begins to get to the heart of the matter as to why many view iTickets negatively. With music prior to iTunes, and the cable industry currently, we felt/feel like we are paying for a lot of stuff we really don’t want and we can observe a significant price reduction when the model is switched to a la carte. At least that was the case for music, and most consumers certainly expect it should be the same for television.

But the music industry had it easy. It wasn’t like the price of an album was adjusted hourly and was dependent on a multitude of factors such as the day you purchased it, how soon you purchased it before you intended to listen to it, etc.

No, an album cost about $12 and that was that.

So, when airlines go a la carte, because most travelers have no “set” price for a ticket from one location to another fixed in their mind, and so the charges for added options are all perceived as added fees. And in cases where we do have a fairly good idea of what a ticket between points A and B should cost we aren’t seeing a significant reduction in price when we don’t have to pay for all of the “extra” stuff that we don’t use.

Whereas Apple took the item that was perceived to have the most value – the one song you liked – unbundled it and charged far less for it, airlines are unbundling a host of items that have little perceived value and, at least as far as most travelers are concerned, charging extra for those items.

Read the thread in its entirety: SWISS AIR – Beware of new seating policy

Image: “Jefferson Airplane – Takes Off” by Kevin Dooley. CC BY 2.0.


  1. He did revolutionize the airline industry. It’s called the iPhone, and it’s takes away much of the worry, hassle, and tedium of travel.

  2. The key issue is that airlines are unbundling and charging more for items that used to be included in the ticket price. Checked baggage, advanced seat assignments, call center ticketing fees, etc. One can argue you are paying about the same and getting less, or having to pay more for what you got before. At the same time, your not getting much more value add for having to pay more for what you used to get for free. Your bags don’t come out faster, they haven’t made the seats more comfortable, etc. Also, for instance, United used to give away extra E+ seats at the gate but now they charge for them. Simple, I used to be able to get something for free, and now it costs me money.

    Also other fees are outrageous like change fees at $200. That is why I have flown Southwest & JetBlue as a Mosaic. I don’t think the mainstream media or bloggers have given enough attention to change fees and use it or lose it ticketing which US introduced in Sep 2002. It also used to be easier for airport agents to waive change fees with paper tickets. You could show up at the gate 5 minutes before ddeparture with your paper ticket and they would never have time to reissue it & figure out the correct fare difference. So now, your getting less. Also all airlines used to offer free same day standby at any time, and now they have added all sorts of fees and complications to same day changes. Again, getting less then you got before.

    I grew up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and I base my expectations off of these formative years. I don’t think I should get less than I did before for approximately the same price of tickets. In the late 80’s and early 90’s I got much better food & drink on the plane, and it was easier to change flights without exorbitant fees. There were no checked bag fees, no call center fees, changes were maybe $25 or $35, and a lot of the time that was waived. So how should I be happy to pay more now for the same thing or less?

    Maybe people growing up now never “had it good?”

  3. And the iPad is also revolutionizing the way people work in the airline industry…specifically cabin crew and pilots 🙂

  4. Agree with wctl and AllexEiffel that Jobbs has indeed, and will continue for a while, to impact the airlines. The visual interface of Macs, later adopted by Windows, created a user environment that has pretty much given us complete access to the airline res systems, making it possible for us to book and pay and ticket and check-in online from home or office or hotel. The iPhone brought much of this access to a mobile platform, again with a user interface that opens it up to just about anyone. And finally the iPad introduced what is becoming the ubiquitous media platform on which we will ultimately receive our IFE (over intranet wifi) so airlines no longer have to hard wire hugely expensive and complex in seat systems. Plus we have almost all the interactive functions offered by laptops. For crews it means ultimately getting rid of those huge “pilot bags” containing hundreds of pounds of paper manuals. For me, the iPad means I no longer have to carry a few pounds of magazines and newspapers on a flight as I can now download them in advance using NEXT ISSUE…in addition to specific films, TV or podcasts I might want to catch up on if the IFE offering is limited (certainly the case on most US domestic flights)…not to mention my music library on my iPod/iPhone.

    So I figure Steve Jobs had indeed made a huge contribution to the airline industry.

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