United Airlines' self-induced crisis last week lost the company points on social media, and dollars in its market cap. But will it actually lose customers as a result?
The results of a clever experiment published Monday by Morning Consult suggest that — for the moment, at least — the answer is yes. When choosing between two identical (and hypothetical) flights, people who said they had heard about the United news in recent weeks strongly preferred flying with another airline. Many still chose a competitor's flight even when it cost significantly more and came with a layover.
The online experiment was led by Kyle Dropp, the chief research officer at Morning Consult, a digital media and polling company. Dropp's experiment presented respondents with a pair of flights as they might appear on Kayak.com, asking them which they would choose if they were flying from New York to Chicago. One option was with United and the other with American Airlines.
At first, the two flights were identical in every respect, flying nonstop for about three hours, at a cost of $204. For a casual airline traveler with no brand loyalty, we could expect this decision to come down to a coin flip, and for those who said they had not heard of the United scandal, it was: 49 percent chose the United flight, and 51 percent chose the American flight.
But among respondents who had heard about the passenger who was dragged off the United flight, the result was wildly lopsided, with just 21 percent of those respondents picking United.
The researchers pressed on this preference further, testing the strength of respondents' aversion to United by making changes to the choice. One variation gave the American flight a layover in Cleveland, adding about three hours of travel time. Another option increased the cost of the American flight by $66. A third did both these things, asking people to choose between a nonstop United flight for $204 and a one-stop American flight for $270.
These changes did push some people to prefer United, but others still would not budge. About 44 percent of respondents who said they had heard of United recently preferred to fly American even when the journey cost $66 more and took an additional three hours.
Of course, this preference for American over United may have been driven by other factors, too. Respondents may have had stronger pre-existing brand allegiances to American or been members in the company's rewards program. The hypothetical choice did not actually make respondents spend real money, either. Real consumers may be more likely to let their pocketbooks decide, particularly in an industry so dominated by price. Companies like Kayak and Expedia probably have an early sense of shoppers' habits but, for the moment, there's little public evidence to go on.
One final bright spot for United is the hope that this aversion fades quickly. The researchers plan to repeat this experiment in the weeks and months to come. It's possible consumers will turn their attention to something else by then. On the internet, the half life of outrage seems only to get shorter.
The Morning Consult's experiment included a nationally representative online sample of 1,975 adults on April 12.