There's a lot we don't know about flying.
That is to say, we've got a pretty good handle on how the planes stay up in the air. What's less clear to many consumers is what makes the industry work behind the scenes.
And that's information we'd all really like to know.
Judging by the amount of time and pixels spent on how consumers can get the best deals and what they can do to game the airline system, there are clearly a lot of questions out there about this industry we all depend on. As MIT's Airline Data Project puts it, "the U.S. commercial airline industry is one of the most diverse, dynamic and perplexing in the world." That pretty much nails it.
While pulling back the curtain on the airline industry is too much for any one article (or book or television miniseries…), we can certainly take this issue on one step at a time. It's always worth learning a little more after all. In that spirit, thanks to data from 1010data, here are ten things you may not have known about how consumers fly.
Perhaps the first thing to know is when we fly and when we buy, and it turns out most consumers buy airline tickets in March. About 10% of bookings happen in this month, with a steep drop-off immediately afterward in April.
Why? Well, consumers are notoriously stingy with their money after the holidays. January and February typically record low spending compared to the rest of the year as Americans pay down credit card debt and generally wait out the financial hangover left by Christmas and Thanksgiving. Yet, according to 1010data, their analysis also suggests that consumers start making annual travel plans fairly early into the year.
The result? With plans on the table and the holidays behind them, travelers start their shopping come March.
Now here's where the data starts getting weird (yes, this early in the list).
The average traveler books a trip about two months in advance, 45 days to be precise. While there's always a lot of room to move when you take averages, the mean of a data set is still a pretty good way to tease out patterns. So, given our earlier information, we would expect most travel to take place in May.
While May sees about as many flights as any other month, the numbers there are very average. December, unsurprisingly, is the overwhelmingly most popular month for people to fly. The result is simply a statistical curiosity. People average out to booking their trips 45 days in advance, but that doesn't necessarily mean that March will fuel a rush of late-spring trips.
Here's the odd thing about flying in December. The holiday season does see the largest number of takeoffs and landings out of the entire year, but that doesn't happen as a single spike. No, interestingly enough people steadily start flying more and more starting in September and ramping up gradually through the end of the year.
By January they've all gone home and decided to stay, with the early months seeing the fewest flights of all, but Americans apparently just love to fly in the autumn.
This data point most likely comes to us courtesy of the business sector.
Most travelers do try to book in advance, which is a wise practice given the way that prices can jump as the date of travel approaches. However about a quarter of all fliers wait until a very short window before they pick up their tickets. Some of these travelers may be price insensitive, others may fly on commuter routes which have less elastic pricing.
But a lot of this is probably explained by business travel.
Roughly half of business travelers book their trip less than 14 days in advance. This is a huge section of the market, so perhaps it's simply more surprising that only a quarter of fliers book two weeks ahead.
"What we are seeing is the timing of flying, and the increases in peaks and demands around holiday times and vacation times, that's an opportunity for the airlines," said Natalie Seidman, the senior vice president for data insights at 1010data. "I think the combination of knowing December, which is Christmas, and March are the most popular times to fly combined with the fact that most travelers buy their flights early in the year is an enticement for airlines to plan their offers around that."
People don't just like to book their tickets in March, they also love to fly that month too. It's the second busiest month for flights after December.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, February and November are two of the busiest months for last-minute bookings.
Travelers famously hate airline extras. When it comes to adding checked bag fees to charging just for a bottle of water or a can of soda, many industry critics argue that airlines are trying to monetize every point of contact with the consumer. It may not go that far, but it's easy to see where their criticism comes from.
Still, it doesn't look like the hate is spread evenly. On airlines like Delta (DLTA) and American (AAL) only between 1% and 2% of customers buy extras that cost less than $20 (respectively). On Southwest (LUV - Get Report) , however, a whopping 18% of travelers purchase extras like food, drinks and early boarding passes.
"Delta is seeing more peaks and valleys in terms of its distribution around the year," noted Seidman, and with good cause.
Delta's lows are far lower than most of its competitors. For example, while bookings across the board slump in April and May, Delta's plunge by nearly half.
Yet what the Atlanta based airline does have going for it is the summer. Of the major airlines, more people book on Delta and more people fly on it during the summer months. Why, exactly, consumers flock to this airline for their summer vacations may have to do with the routes that it flies. Or, it may just be a quirk of fate.
Everyone books flights differently. As we noted above, while most travelers buy their tickets several months in advance, others wait until just a few days ahead to grab a seat. Some people buy no extra frills, others ask for the deluxe package and an extra side of peanuts.
However American Airlines does seem to have the lock on one trend: Every single month of the year, it has the lowest average days between booking and flying.
That means that on American, people buy their tickets the least amount of time in advance. Frankly, on behalf of harried travelers everywhere, it would be nice if they could capitalize on that idea.
"What we're seeing in our data is that consumers are cross-shopping across airlines," said Seidman. "I'm sure that pricing is an important driver, and that convenience and other factors are an important driver to that too."
What Seidman found particularly interesting, though, was the limits of loyalty programs in driving consumers.
"Loyalty programs do work," she said, "but what was interesting to me is that [they] are not as sticky as I would have expected."
Consumers don't blow these offers off, but they have a lot of competing priorities.
Some 67% of people fly just one airline, according to Seidman and 1010data's research. The big question is why.
At least some of it has to do, she said, with deliberate consumer choice. As noted above, loyalty programs do work to some extent, and in other instances many people simply feel comfortable on certain carriers.
"I know people," she said, "who will do a stopover on a flight to stay with their airline."
That said, increasingly limited consumer choice also probably plays a role as well. Two of the dominant stories around the industry over the past several decades have been mergers and deregulation, both of which have famously led to ossifying routes. To an increasing degree, certain airlines dominate major routes and sections of the country, leaving relatively little choice for local consumers.