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The Psychology behind the Perception of Airline Award Availability

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By: Wise Marketer Staff |

Posted on October 12, 2018

How do you feel about going swimming at the beach right after watching Shark Week?  Have the statistical chances of being eaten by a shark increased because you watched Shark Week?  Of course not!

By David Feldman

But if you’re like many folks – you’re probably thinking about sharks a little more than usual, and a bit hesitant to get in the water.  If we took the time to rationally consider the statistics – we know that the chances of seeing a shark, let alone being attacked by one – are so remote it’s almost not worth thinking about it.

But think about it we do…

Previously – we’ve looked at the psychology of frequent flyer award redemptions, the effect of reinforcement and the impact it has on driving behavior.  But what about our perception of being able to redeem that first-class award seat to Paris?  How will that affect our decision-process when thinking about joining the airline’s frequent flyer program or signing up for their credit card?  And what about our perception of the airline passenger experience?

Let’s take a quick look at the psychology that affects our perception…



The concept of heuristics and biases was pioneered by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1973.  Heuristics are mental shortcuts that help us make decisions or judgments.  There are different types of heuristics.



The representativeness heuristic is a snap judgment of whether someone or something fits a category.  David Myers, Professor of Psychology at Hope College, explains the representativeness heuristic as:

“The tendency to presume, sometimes despite contrary odds, that someone or something belongs to a particular group if resembling a typical member”.

For example, if we walked into a bar next to the courthouse and saw a group of well-dressed guys in fancy suits, we might immediately assume that they were lawyers. We make that assumption because what we see, represents our image of lawyers.  Of course – they may be lawyers… on the other hand, they could also be “the Defendants”.  The use of the mental heuristic doesn’t guarantee that our judgments are accurate.



While the above example relies on our pre-existing mental prototype, the availability heuristic is about making judgments on the likelihood of events, based on examples that pop into mind.  According to Myers, the availability heuristic is

“A cognitive rule that judges the likelihood of things in terms of their availability in memory. If instances of something come readily to mind, we presume it to be commonplace”

In the shark example earlier, after watching Shark Week, there is no shortage of examples in our mind of sharks, types of sharks, and incidents of attacks by sharks.  But is the risk of shark attack higher than the risk of being involved in a car accident on our way to the beach.  If we used statistics as our decision-maker – we would happily jump in the ocean.

But the availability heuristic effect means that we apply more weight to examples or stories that we recall more easily or have heard/watched/read more often or more recently.  The same principle applies when thinking about the comparative risk of being killed in a plane crash compared to a car accident.  Do we feel the same trepidation when we get into a car compared to a plane?

Myers explains that “because news footage of airplane crashes is a readily available memory for most of us—especially since September 11, 2001, and the two Malaysia Airlines crashes in 2014—we often suppose we are more at risk traveling in commercial airplanes than in cars”.

Our consumption of news and social media, anecdotes from friends, family and colleagues, combined with our own experience – introduces a cognitive bias to our thinking.



We know from our previous discussions, that the proposition of earning a free flight is what drives customer behavior.  But does the availability heuristic impact our perception of whether frequent flyer programs are worth the effort? Will we be able to use our miles for that free flight when the time comes?

Linking the above concepts together – it’s easy to see that our own bias (availability of examples in our mind) will be heavily influenced by experience, our social circles, the media, and even our Facebook feed.

A frequent flyer who travels weekly and is familiar with the nuances of redeeming frequent flyer miles, is likely to have a very different cognitive bias (and set of examples in mind) when thinking about the future ability to redeem that first-class award; compared to a once-a-year flyer whose Facebook feed is full of friends complaining that they can never find a flight to redeem their miles on.


[dropshadowbox align="center" effect="lifted-both" width="80%" height="" background_color="#ffffff" border_width="1" border_color="#dddddd" ]Perception matters.[/dropshadowbox]


It’s all well and good for those of us in the industry to report on the yearly changes in award availability – measured in changes in percentage points.  But what REALLY impacts changes in member engagement is the wider PERCEPTION of award availability.  Members (and potential members) need to believe that the award they aspire to – will be realistically available when they go to redeem.  If not – they won’t be the slightest bit interested in your credit card… no matter how many times you interrupt their movie to pitch it.



Does the availability heuristic also affect how we view the airline passenger experience?  The average flying experience for a frequent flyer isn’t always negative. Priority security, priority boarding, free checked bags, upgrades, complimentary drinks – in a lot of ways, frequent flyer benefits remove the typical aggravations of the travel experience.  But do occasional flyers perceive the experience the same way?  After all - the chances of being beaten and dragged off a plane on any given United flight are statistically low.

But that hasn’t stopped many folks from having an elevated expectation of a poor customer experience on their next flight thanks to constant media re-runs of the Dr Dao incident, combined with the availability of endless anecdotes of rude airline agents; shrinking legroom; endless security lines; paying for bags; paying for seats; paying for water; and other assorted horror travel stories from friends and family about delays, cancellations, and being stranded in Chicago because of a snowstorm - that get a guaranteed run on traditional and social media alike.


[dropshadowbox align="center" effect="lifted-both" width="80%" height="" background_color="#ffffff" border_width="1" border_color="#dddddd" ]The more vivid the instance that you recall – the more likely you perceive it to occur.[/dropshadowbox]


Low cost carriers such as Spirit Airlines or Ryanair have earned perceptions far worse than the actual travel experience.



It’s easy to understand that perception matters.  But understanding the psychology behind our perceptions, judgments, and decisions, is important to help improve the image of our programs if we want to enroll new members and get them to engage in profitable behaviors.

David Feldman is Director, Loyalty and Reward Program Strategy at Catchit Loyalty, and a publisher and global speaker on airline and hotel loyalty programs. David can be contacted here.

References and Further Reading:

  • Roughly half of airline program members don't understand their program.
  • Tversky, Amos; Kahneman, Daniel (1973). "Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability". Cognitive Psychology. 5 (2): 207–232
  • Tversky, A.; Kahneman, D. (1974). "Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases". Science. 185 (4157): 1124–1131
  • Schwarz, Norbert; Bless, Herbert; Strack, Fritz; Klumpp, Gisela; Rittenauer-Schatka, Helga; Simons, Annette (1991). "Ease of retrieval as information: Another look at the availability heuristic". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 61 (2): 195–202
  • Myers, D.G. and Twenge, J.M. (2016) Social Psychology. 12th Edition, McGraw-Hill, New York.