By Alison Fox
December 29, 2019
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Photo Illustration Source: Getty Images

On Singapore Airlines you can Book the Cook. On United Airlines, you can beat jet lag with an app. On Norwegian, you can pick and choose what you pay for.

While these airlines and the services they offer are all quite different, the one thing they have in common is the power of choice.

Whether appeasing luxury passengers or appealing to budget-conscious ones, more than ever, airlines are using the concept of customization to attract travelers and differentiate themselves — even in economy. And while experts say these options may help cement brand loyalty where it already exists, it’s not necessarily going to become a deciding factor when choosing whether or not you book a flight.

Advances in technology have made it easier than ever to offer customers choices. It’s a matter of logistics, Scott Keyes, the co-owner of Scott’s Cheap Flights, told Travel + Leisure.

“Rewind 20 years ago and it was so much easier to stock the plane with one entree,” he said.

Singapore Airlines has offered their Book the Cook service, one of the more luxurious examples of giving customers choices, on several premium economy flights for years. They recently expanded the service, which gives passengers the chance to pre-order meals from a much longer list than the inflight menu, on their nonstop Newark to Singapore route.

On Delta, passengers in the main cabin on international routes are able to mix and match their appetizers and entrees (think grilled shrimp marinated in harissa). And in an effort to help customers with jet lag, United teamed up with the Timeshifter app to let passengers choose when the best time for them to sleep is depending on where they are traveling to.

“I think personalization is important because once we know what you expect, and we're able to deliver based on what you expect, that improves the customer experience,” Betty Wong, Singapore Airlines’ divisional VP of inflight services and design, told Travel + Leisure. “I think everybody likes choice. It gives you that control.”

On the other side of the same coin, Norwegian sells its fares separate from things like checked baggage and even a meal or drink service. Anders Lindström, a spokesman for Norwegian, said it is common to see passengers paying for meals on daytime flights from Europe to the U.S., for example, but skipping it on the reverse leg.

“We believe no one should pay for something they don’t want,” Lindström said. “I think you see with younger generations, they are more demanding in terms of knowing what they're paying for. They want to ensure they don’t pay extra for things that they're not going to take advantage of.”

Keyes said that while bells and whistles are certainly nice, the top consideration for an economy ticket will almost always be price.

“When you are flying in economy in Delta, it's basically the same as flying economy in American, which is basically the same as flying in economy in United. It’s just a means of getting from point a to point b,” Keyes said. “As a result, by far the No.1 criteria they are basing their purchases on is price.”

Brett Snyder, the founder of airline industry blog Cranky Flier, said while he doesn’t necessarily think that’s true anymore, explaining a strong economy has started to dictate a more discerning market, the idea of having control over what you pay for is an intriguing one. In fact, he said it’s the “a la carte model,” or unbundled fares, that has been a huge financial help for airlines (which also happens to work both for price-conscious customers and those who want to add on services like lounge access or Wi-Fi).

“The ability to let people pick and choose also encourages airlines to offer more products if there’s a revenue stream that’s there for them,” he said. “In the last decade especially... the airlines have been doing well and they’ve said ‘we’re going to try to invest in this and see what we can do.’”

Ben Mutzabaugh, the senior aviation editor for The Points Guy, said having choices may make you happier when you’ve already picked a certain airline, but it won’t necessarily make you loyal to one if you aren’t already.

“If you are a regular passenger who has given their loyalty to a particular airline, these are probably things you tend to like, it makes it feel like it’s your airline,” he said. “I think the question then becomes: are these things that shift a passenger from one airline to another? Who knows, but I would be skeptical.”

We’ve only started to see the emergence of substantial customization, said Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and president of the Atmosphere Research Group, and it’s too soon to know exactly which options will become the most important ones to passengers.

“What the airline industry would like to be able to offer eventually is to let every traveler, no matter where he or she is sitting on the plane, to customize as much of the journey as they would like and can afford,” he said. “But a lot of things people may end up liking we don't know yet because airlines don’t do a great job of selling it. What we’re starting to see is an emergence of airlines turning into retailers.”

He added: “If you're buying the things that appeal to you at a price that you think is fair, then it's not nickeling and diming.”