As you read this I’ll probably be sitting on a flight from Brisbane to Auckland that cost me $750. Sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but I’m happy nonetheless.
Why? Well, at late notice I had the opportunity of working for 2 months in Brisbane. This presented something of a conundrum, because I wanted to be home in NZ to spend the holidays with my Mum and a whole bunch of my favourite people. I therefore had to weigh up the price of the ticket against the benefits of what I could achieve while here (both in terms of financial and professional returns).
Obviously plane tickets around Christmas are expensive because many other want to travel at the same time, which signals to the airlines that they should put their prices up. This ensures 1) the airlines make more money and 2) there are seats available for people who really need them, like me. So despite the high price I’m more thankful I had the opportunity to both get to Brisbane and get back to NZ for holidays.
This got me wondering about what would happen if airfares were not priced this way; that is if the price of the ticket was set at the average price needed for the airline to do business. In this situation one would expect many planes to fly empty during off-peak times and sell-out over Christmas. There’d usually be either too many or too few seats and, in the case of the latter, you simply would not be able to get where you want to.
In this situation, I would have been faced with an even harder decision: Do I take the job in Brisbane and risk missing Christmas in NZ, or stay home but miss out on the work? Thankfully that’s not a choice I had to make because airlines price their seats in response to demand, or more specifically what economists refer to as “willingness-to-pay”. Willingness-to-pay describes what you are prepared to pay for goods and services.
From a layman’s perspective it means making economic hay while the sun shines. At this point people frequently assume that someone with high willingness-to-pay must be rich and vice versa. Well no, not exactly. In fact, detailed empirical studies of my purchasing behaviour over 31 years proves that willingness-to-pay has less to do with income than it has to do with my own personal preferences.
For example, on the same day as I booked my flight home from Brisbane I also booked a $150 return flight from Auckland to Christchurch. In this instance if the ticket had been more than, say, $300 I probably would not have traveled at all. The difference in what I was willing-to-pay for these tickets reflects that when travelling for work I’m prepared to pay a lot, whereas I’m more frugal when travelling for pleasure.
That frugality does not mean that I never travel at busy times, but it does mean that when I do I’m more flexible about when/where I travel (e.g. later at night). It’s ultimately got very little to do with how much money I have or don’t have. So it seems intuitive to me that willingness-to-pay to travel varies considerably for factors that are not related to our income, but instead depend on personal preferences.
Moreover, the fact that airlines use a demand-based pricing system tends to mean that the available capacity is allocated to the people who really want them. Of course that’s not why airlines price this way; they do it to make money. But in a competitive environment (such as trans-Tasman air travel) the ability of airlines to “price gouge” is of course limited by how other companies respond.
That’s why demand-based pricing makes so much sense. But despite it’s enormous advantages, we do not price parts of our transport system in response to demand. From what I can tell the debate about demand-based transport pricing often gets distracted by the following issues:
- “Alternatives” - i.e. we have to invest in public transport before we can price road capacity. In response I point out that even if we had no other transport options would it not still be in our interest to implement a demand-based pricing system to ensure road space was allocated to those who needed it most? Also, cities that have implemented demand-based pricing schemes, such as Stockholm, have not observed major increases in PT patronage, at least compared to the reduction in vehicle trips.
- “Social equity” - i.e. low-income people will be priced off the road. But low-income households a) tend to drive less, especially at peak times in metropolitan areas. So why not implement an efficient pricing system and then compensate those (few households) that are adversely affected? That way we provide the right signals to everyone, while supporting those affected who are unable to change (although that support should be tagged to people adversely affect at the time of implementation).
- “The devil’s in the details” – i.e. we need to flesh out the details before we sign up to demand-based transport pricing. I understand the sentiment but think we need to split the “strategic” and “operational” factors. Can we not as a society decide to support demand-based transport pricing “in principle” and then undertake research to flesh out the details? And then put the result to a public referendum? Indeed, if way back in 2005 if Auckland had not made a strategic commitment (through the RLTS) to support public transport, then we probably would not have seen the gains we have seen – simply because the operational details had not all been worked through at the time.
The first objection is the most common and deserves more attention than I can give it here because my flight is now boarding.
But very quickly, I will say that the disappearance of “traffic” in the presence of demand-based pricing has two interesting implications. First that there are many people on the roads at peak times that are not willing-to-pay very much, i.e. they’re just there because the price is low. Second, people have many more options open to them than public transport, i.e. PT is not an all-encompassing transport panacea.
And with that said this economic scrooge would like to wish you all a very merry and safe summer holiday.