Who are the people who fly? What is their profile?

For many, flying is an elitist means of transport reserved for a rare clientele that can afford it. This is an argument frequently put forward by those who want to tax it more or even ban it. But beyond the clichés, do we know what the typical air traveller looks like?

The plane: an egalitarian means of transport

In Franc the DGAC (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) conducted several surveys which aimed to better understand the typical passenger profile. Unfortunately it seems that they stopped in 2017 as no subsequent results can be found, but neither do we think that the figures have changed much since then. So let’s look at the figures published by the DGAC in 2017.

It appears that the plane is a very egalitarian means of transport in France.

  • 53% of the passengers are men and therefore 47% are women. And women are even more likely to travel for work (53% versus 47%)!
  • It concerns all ages: 65% of passengers are between 26 and 55!

More interestingly, the average trip length is 19 days, which goes against the idea that passengers abuse short stays and thus harm the environment.

50% of air travellers are economically inactive or of low socio-economic status

Where it gets even more interesting is when you look at the distribution of passengers by socio-professional category.

Air passengers in France by Socio Professional category in 2015-2016 according to the DGAC

More egalitarian than that is not possible: Half of the people travelling by plane are “CSP-” and inactive. Moreover, if we take into account the reality of purchasing power, putting farmers and certain craftsmen in the CSP+ category is, in our opinion, an outdated vision of society.

The idea that air travel is only for the wealthy has been shattered. On the contrary, it has largely democratised travel, especially medium and long distance travel.

Air transport follows a well-known logic

This is not surprising. Like many products or services that are initially expensive to produce, air transport was initially reserved for those who could afford it, i.e. a wealthy clientele. Then two things happen:

  • the more the sector develops, the more unit costs fall
  • In order to develop, players must target other customer segments, which is made possible by lower costs that allow the development of offers adapted to other customer groups.

So after the most affluent we saw the explosion of air travel for the middle classes and then for less and less affluent people, the only way for the sector to grow being to reach people who are not yet its customers.

As a result, it is now possible to find flights at absolutely any fare, corresponding to a wide variety of services, in order to reach almost all customer segments.

For example, when we explained the mechanism of fare classes we showed that the same flight between Paris and New York could, depending on the class of travel and a host of other criteria, theoretically be sold for between €51 and €13770

Air travel has thus undergone the same phenomenon as things like television, the car, the mobile phone: things that were initially reserved for a privileged few and are now available to everyone. Not everyone can afford the same model but almost everyone can have one.

Of course, air transport also follows the economic development cycle of the various regions of the world. While the market is arguably relatively mature in Europe or North America, the Asian continent continues to see an increase in the population that can access air travel before, perhaps, Africa takes over.

A Franco-French context to be taken into account

If the plane has become the means of transport for young people wishing to discover new horizons and for the “CSP-” it is, as we have seen, a logical phenomenon of an industry that has become mature and knows how to control its costs in order to offer a product to each type of traveller. Then there are local phenomena that can amplify the phenomenon.

First of all, the price of the train, which at peak full stops can become prohibitive: when a plane ticket to Spain costs much less than a train ticket to Marseille or Bordeaux, this leads to trade-offs. Generally speaking, it is no more expensive to fly to a European capital than to take the train to a French destination. Sometimes it’s even cheaper.

Secondly, because even regardless of the price of the plane ticket (well… to a certain extent), holidays abroad are sometimes taken by people on average or even modest incomes, and not for the reasons that we spontaneously think of. The truth is that for these people, local services are so expensive in France (accommodation, food, catering) that it is much cheaper to go abroad for superior services, which justifies the choice of the plane to go there.

Finally, the price variable is also a factor for those in the highest income bracket. French executives are among those with the lowest purchasing power in Europe in ‘comparable’ economies, especially if we compare them to the English, Germans, Dutch and generally to the northern countries. But the problem of purchasing power affects everyone (but P&MS in France have the double problem of income and taxation).

And, as has been said, holidays in France are expensive. So many turn to countries where top-of-the-range services are available to them, whereas they would have to be satisfied with a mid-range service in France with a quality of service which, as we know, is not France’s strong point.

In short, and this is an inconvenient truth not to be mentioned, the plane because it allows you to reach destinations with lower prices, is the means of transport for middle or “lower” management, employees and generally middle income people who cannot afford a holiday in France. This is not the case for the better-off.

Growth driven by low-cost carriers

You don’t need to be an expert to understand that if one out of every two air travellers in France is a CSP- or an inactive person, it’s thanks to low costs carriers. Without it, air travel would be less accessible and the figures we are talking about here would be more unbalanced. In Europe it was Ryanair, Easyjet and, later, Norwegian that made travel possible for almost everyone.

Mass tourism, the trigger for a crisis that didn’t happen

If we had written this article 6 months ago or more, we could have stuck to its raison d’être: to explain with figures that air transport is now for everyone and that the typical air passenger is not the one you think. But today we cannot fail to make the connection between air travel for all and economic crisis.

For the past year we have been waiting for a major crisis in air transport. Its cause was known: an overcapacity crisis due to low-cost airlines. We had already talked about this when we explained why airline bankruptcies would continue.

Carsten Spohr, the CEO of Lufthansa, said at the time that “tickets costing less than 10 euros are ‘economically, environmentally and politically irresponsible’.

Politically we don’t know. Economically, we didn’t have time to see it, the COVID-19 came first. Ecologically, this is the topic of the moment at the time of writing.

Democratised air tourism: an ecological problem?

In fact this is the paradox of the story. In the age of mass tourism, air travel accounts for around 2.5% to 4% of CO2 emissions, compared to 4% for the internet and 10% for clothing, but for some this is still too much.

Ironically, while environmentalists denounce it as the transport of the rich, it is because it has become the transport of the poorer classes that it has become an environmental problem.

Photo : boarding passengers by Patryk Kosmider via Shutterstock

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrinhttp://www.duperrin.com
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.

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