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Why Do Cheap Airlines Look Cheap?

I love cheap airlines, but there is one thing about them that I never quite understood: Why are they so ugly?

As a quick reminder, here's the interior of some cheap airlines:




And here's the interior of some mid-range and up airlines (economy class):




So why are cheap airlines so ugly? Why do they look so... cheap? I’ve been asking people this question and came up with a few interesting opinions that don’t quite answer the question for me.

i - Costs

Pretty can be expensive. This is the reason many cheap products look the way they do, being pretty costs a lot.

Does that apply here? I don't think so, it seems to me like the expensive airlines are getting away with paying less for decoration.

There are no colored stripes or layers of paint on the overhead compartment. Lufthansa and Emirates order very neutral colors for the chair which one would assume might be cheaper due to not requiring such an extensive dying process. I can’t find a reason why I’d cost more to look nice.

ii - Intentional Ugliness

It's been pointed out to me that companies intentionally make their cheaper products look cheap, such that the consumer feels more of an update when they purchase the expensive version, and as to make it immediately obvious which one is the expensive version.

Someone postulate this is what's going on here, but to me, it makes no sense, airlines are not a product owned by the same company, they are in competition. Unless there's a secret airline aggregator cabal there, this theory falls flat.

Maybe, due to dynamics that were internal to multi-tier product corporations, people associate a certain type of ugliness with a lower price point; So cheap airlines are simply trading off aesthetics for focus on their branding, the fact that they are cheap.

iii - Ease Of Coverup

Another consideration of how you style a plane is how cheap it is to cover up damages. Either caused while the plane is under your operation or by the previous owner if you are leasing or buying second-hand.

It might be that the kind of subtle off-white tones and muted pastel colors required to look nice are harder to get right if your plane is scratched and harder to fix in a way that doesn’t look off. If you are painting everything SCREAMING YELLOW, that makes every fix-up job as easy as applying more SCREAMING YELLOW.

More importantly, it could mean you have to fix the planes less often since wear and tear aren’t as obvious and don’t do much damage to the aesthetics. Still, this is the kind of circular “we make it ugly so that it doesn’t become ugly” argument I don’t really buy.

Most importantly, covering up another brand becomes much easier, and could be as easy as painting over it.

iv - Classist Nature Of Management

Another hypothesis I’ve heard, and in part validated by looking at a list of jobs from some of these companies, is that none of them care much about design and don’t hire a lot of designers and related roles.

So most branding questions end up with management and are in large part a reflection of their aesthetic tastes.

Part of the “education” that families which hold “old wealth” go through is aesthetics, so one would think that if princelings and their friends ran an airline, it might end up looking ok by default.

This is in part supported by the fact that new (cheap) airlines are founded by people from lower crusts of society, while the older (more expensive) airlines trace their roots and much of their current executives to aristocrats and literal princes and kings.

v - Internal Priorities

Nice designs obviously hold great potential for bikeshedding, and large design teams take away the core focus of management and the flow of capital from the only thing cheap airlines are (really, really, really) good at Getting people from A to B for very little money.

Even if there is a way to be “smart” about good design and not spend a lot of time on it, it would still have to occupy the headspace of founders and managers, and it might stem from a culture of caring for and investing into a lot of other things that aren’t related to the core service.

This is certainly in line with how “normal” airlines lost at budget flights, they were focused on so many things and so caught up in their internal rat race for better times and onboard service, that nobody asked the question “Could we offer some of these routes for 1/10th the cost?”

vi - Lowest Common Denominator

One underlying assumption here is that most people can enjoy good design when they see it.

However, there surely are people that look at bright pinks and SCREAMING YELLOWS and think “Oh buy, sure am glad I’m in a nice looking plane once again!”.

Even if these people are a minority, there might be a reason why appealing to their works. Maybe this demographic is over-representative of the kind of person that would buy a low-cost ticket based on brand recognition, instead of doing the normal thing of just using a flight scanner to find the best deal. This leads me to the last point:

vii - Selection

If you are getting something you are trading something. Maybe something is traded-off in order to achieve a good design, what that thing is needn’t be obvious or legible, a few of the points above present potential candidates, but maybe it’s none of them.

This is, however, the wrong view to take. It’s like asking why humans haven’t evolved fluffy nail-tops or why cows don’t have coloration patterns that resemble inspirational quotes. At the end of the day nobody cares about airplane design when taking an airline, we just use our favorite scanner to find the best deal, if we do have preferences they are based on other criteria.

The only issue I have taking this view is the original thought that started the post, which is that good designs seem easier to achieve than bad ones, you just have to know when to stop throwing SCREAMING YELLOW paint at everything. But maybe that feat is harder to achieve than one would assume.

A final note here would be that, to my surprise, all budget Japanese airlines I flew with were rather pretty.

Example: Vanilla air

Overall, the style of budget airlines remains one of the great yet hopelessly uninteresting mysteries of life for me.

Published on: 2023-03-28



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