Difference Between Airline Hard & Soft Product?

Difference Between Airline Hard & Soft Product?

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Often when describing airline experiences, I refer to both “hard” and “soft” products. I realize that I often use terms like these without stepping back and defining them, so in this post I wanted to take the opportunity to do that.

Airline hard product vs. soft product

When I describe the hard and soft product of premium cabin airline experiences, what am I referring to? As a general rule of thumb, here’s how I define this:

  • A first & business class hard product is anything physically attached or bolted to the plane, which doesn’t differ from flight to flight; this could include the seat, the onboard shower, the size of the entertainment screen, etc.
  • A first & business class soft product is anything that can vary from flight to flight; this could include food, drinks, service, amenity kits, bedding, etc.

In other words, the distinction comes down to whether a particular feature could vary from flight to flight or not.

Emirates’ A380 shower is definitely a “hard” product
Emirates’ A380 shower amenities are definitely “soft” product

There’s a gray area in defining these

While I think the definition of hard and soft product is largely agreed upon, there’s still a bit of a gray area with defining aspects of the passenger experience.

For example, I’d consider a seat back entertainment screen as such to be part of the hard product. However, the software (the selection of entertainment, the system’s responsiveness, etc.), is arguably part of the soft product, as it can change over time.

Hard product, soft product, or both?

Similarly, is Wi-Fi part of the soft product or hard product? The fact that the system is installed as such would be hard product (the antenna is bolted to the plane), while the system’s performance (which can vary from flight to flight based on route) is arguably part of the soft product.

Bottom line

When discussing airline experiences, we often use terms like hard product and soft product. Hard product refers to the fixed elements of a flight, while soft product refers to the variable elements of a flight. There are definitely some areas where reasonable people can disagree on the definition, like if we’re talking about the entertainment selection, the quality of the Wi-Fi, etc.

How do you define airline soft & hard products?

Conversations (12)
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  1. Brianair Guest

    The difference is that hard product is hard and the soft product is soft. Simple as that.

  2. Fred Fowler Guest

    Why not call it what it is in accounting terms, fixed or variable? Basic terms that most people readily understand! Why does the travel industry want to complicate everything it does?

  3. Juan M Guest

    Ben, you have explained plenty in the past (at least, several years ago) what the differences are between soft and hard products, term wise.

    Whoever is confused nowadays most likely belongs to new readers.

  4. Swiss Tony Guest

    Why use terms that you have to define?

    Why not just say 'seat', 'service', 'in-flight entertainment' etc when writing?

    Make life simple and stop using these artificial constructs.

    What benefit do they give a reader? How do they help describe anything?

    It's only complicated because you choose to make it so.

    1. Juan M Guest

      Its not complicated, people are just too lazy to understand. Soft is human/service factor, hard is airplane/space satisfaction-comfort.

  5. Johosofat Guest

    I thought this post was going to be about which airlines had the biggest "gap" between hard and soft product. Maybe that would be interesting to hear.

  6. Steve Diamond

    If its fixed to the aircraft it's hard, if it is not then its soft. Pretty simple and not confusing at all.

    1. Eskimo Guest

      But the seat cushions are soft.
      This is too confusing.

      What about airline lounges?

    2. Steve Diamond

      Is it fixed to the aircraft yes or no. Seat cushions are fixed to the plane therefor hard despite being soft in touch haha. Lounges are in the terminal and obviously not bolted down to a flying piece of metal so lounges are clearly soft.

  7. Eli Guest

    Oh was always wondering what you meant with that, thanks

  8. Never In Doubt Guest

    “ the distinction comes down to whether a particular feature could vary from flight to flight or not.”

    If you’re writing an entire post about it, you could have come up with a better “distinction”, since many airlines have different seats/layouts from flight to flight.

    How about, “hard product = things attached to the plane”.

  9. George Romey Guest

    The soft product often has the human element which at least for US domestic airlines seems hard to control. Yes some that can be swapped out for technology. With US airlines becoming more credit card mill than airline and at least for coach having a product in which there's very little incentive to differentiate between your competitors I would expect much enhancements to the soft product that can't be easily done through technology.

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Steve Diamond

If its fixed to the aircraft it's hard, if it is not then its soft. Pretty simple and not confusing at all.

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Brianair Guest

The difference is that hard product is hard and the soft product is soft. Simple as that.

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Fred Fowler Guest

Why not call it what it is in accounting terms, fixed or variable? Basic terms that most people readily understand! Why does the travel industry want to complicate everything it does?

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