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Malaysia Flight MH370 and the high cost of low prices

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The missing Malaysian Flight MH370 seems to have gone down in the ocean. We still don’t know why, and it is likely we never will know the entire story. The most recent news that some remains have been found in the ocean has at least provided some closure, not only for the families of the passengers on the flight but also for a world that has been held deep in the thrall of this mystery for weeks.

Reporting on the disappearance of MH370 has described the event as a profound mystery. It is not a profound mystery. It only seems like a profound mystery because most people are immersed in a world where their mobile phones can tell them how many feet they are from the nearest Italian restaurant at all times. Most people live in a world where their new car will automatically send its location to the nearest police station if it detects that it has been in a crash.

Airlines, however, do not live in that world. Alongside the clue-hunting and conspiracy theories that made up most of the reporting on this event, another interesting question has emerged: Why is airplane tracking technology so hopelessly out of date?

Ben Branstetter has pointed out that the radar technology used to locate airplanes is decades-old technology. “How is it possible the full force of the aviation industry,” asks Branstetter, “is having more trouble finding a jet than I would if I lost my smartphone? This is supposedly the era wherein no modern citizen is without the ability to be found, whether by the NSA or their grandmother on Facebook. Did we really not think to bring intercontinental aircraft into this fold?”

In an article for The Guardian, Stephen Trimble says “even cars have broadband connectivity now, but the modern jet airliner… still exists in the age of radio.” He points out that, from a purely technological standpoint, it would be easy to get our airlines connected with a GPS infrastructure and cloud-based black boxes that, at the very least, could make key information available to the world-wide satellite network at regular intervals.

In fact, the potential for this technology has existed for years. Boeing has been pushing for GPS infrastructure and has submitted patents for cloud-based black box transmissions. Sure, revamping the entire airline industry costs some money (Boeing’s plan comes with a $1 billion price tag), but in this day and age, large price tags are never a real obstacle. We are talking about multibillion dollar organizations here. Boeing’s revenue last quarter was $23.8 billion.

Cost itself isn’t the main problem.

The problem is you.

Every time someone asks you what matters the most when choosing an airline, what do you say? According to a survey by Consumer Traveler, 77 percent of you say that you consider fare first, with schedule coming in a distant second at 48 percent. In Australia, Quantas found that the number one consideration when booking both domestic and international flights was pricing.

People may love to complain about cramped seating and stinginess with snacks, but in the end that’s not what you care about. Not when you need to put your money where your mouth is. Nothing proves this point more than the fact that Spirit Airlines is constantly maligned for being stingy with its services, and yet is constantly turning a profit with booked flights. Their business model of always pushing for the cheapest possible tickets has paid them well, no matter what their “consumer rating” is.

This is the undeniable truth that has haunted airlines for more than a decade: When you look at actual customer behavior, people’s behavior is consistent and clear. They want to pay the absolute lowest fare that they can.

And you get what you pay for. You know what technological innovations airlines are investing in? How to cram even more people into flights by having standing-room-only sections on short flights. That's right: Your seating space just got even smaller, because that’s what you said you wanted. Or more specifically, you said the thing you care about the most is making tickets cheaper, and this is another way to do it.

No airline executive is going to take on a $1 billion project unless he or she has to. And despite all the media dust-up, events like the two-week odyssey of MH370 remain rare. It is an oddity, which is part of the reason it received so much news coverage. A single event is certainly no reason to break the bank on a project that has the potential to raise ticket prices and drive away customers.

Ask yourself honestly: If you are given the choice between buying a more expensive ticket on an airline that has GPS tracking or a cheaper ticket on an airline that uses radar, what do you choose?

You are concerned now. You think updating airplane technology is great and a wonderful investment in the future. But pretty soon this news cycle will be over, and we all know what happens next. A celebrity dies, a politician says something stupid, Justin Bieber has a bad hair day, and the blogs and the news channels move on.

And the next time you buy an airplane ticket, you know you will be thinking about only one thing: What will save me the most money?

Photo via BenFrantzDale/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)