Are Coach Passengers Subsidizing the Pope’s Business Class Entourage?

I took great umbrage at a very silly column by Christopher Elliott suggesting that coach passengers were ‘subsidizing’ the comfort of business class passengers.

That’s a strange idea given the spread between economy and business fares. Here are the cheapest advance purchase fares Delta has currently filed between New York and London:

And here are the business class fares on Delta without the benefit of advance purchase discounts:

There’s one flight, though, for which Elliott could be right: the Pope’s charter!

The press corps arguably subsidize papal travel.

…the dirty little secret of papal travel is that the press corps actually subsidizes the pope’s movements, since the roughly 70 reporters on the plane are asked to pay business class airfare in order to fly in coach. Since the 30 members of the pope’s entourage who fly in business aren’t paying anything, this means the cost of the charter is borne almost entirely by the people in steerage.

Now, I don’t think that’s actually right. Coach passengers are paying more than business class passengers, but that doesn’t mean coach passengers are subsidizing those in business.

There are a limited number of seats available on the plane. More journalists want seats than there are seats to go around. So those seats are priced at a profit, they’re rationed on the basis of price.

Meanwhile the reason those seats are so desirable is because the Pope is on the plane. He’s creating the flight’s value in the first place. His compensation is merely in the form of travel for himself and his entourage.

The idea that the media — who are getting access and the ability to file stories that those on the ground cannot — are subsidizing the Pope (rather than the Pope subsidizing the news business) is rather bizarre.

But at least we’ve finally found a flight where Elliott could be right. Although it takes putting him in opposition to the Pope to get there.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. When will there be an article about all passengers subsidizing that greedy pilot? The pilot actually gets PAID to sit up there!

  2. While Elliott is an idiot, I do think there’s some reasonable sense that needs to be used here.

    If one calculates the real estate taken up by a J-class lay flat seat (or a full suite) vs. how many economy seats could be fit in and you include labor costs (much higher FA:pax ratio, special staffing for faster security lines, faster check-in lines, lounge staff) and other per unit costs that are much higher for premium pax (better catering, alcohol, amenity kits, limo services, etc.), it’s not obvious to me that premium passengers really make the world go round.

    Ryanair, Southwest, Spirit, etc. all make massive profits without any business class at all.
    All pure premium airlines have been massive failures.

    We’re in a strong growth cycle right now where businesses are willing to pay for premium comforts for their employees. When the next downturn arrives, they’ll cut back. Airlines will lose massive amounts of money again – let’s hope there is no more government bailout for them again. They better make as much money as they can now.

    Additionally, think of what an employee’s compensation needs to be to make a J-class international ticket worth it vs. Y-class?

  3. @AnonCHI,

    Don’t forget you also need to factor in fuel costs for the weight of the pax and luggage, and the business class seat vs the 2.7 or whatever econ seats, and the average load factors of the two cabins. There are probably fixed per passenger airport fees, booking and other organizational overhead, and taxes paid as well, if those aren’t already completely factored into the ticket.

    While we could probably make a reasonable estimate about which passenger produces higher margin on average, and I’d guess that would be the business class and first class cabins, it would be fraught with error.


  4. Actually ALL airline passengers do subsidize the pilot, the crew and every single member of the corporate workforce from office worker to baggage handler to gate agent.

    That’s the whole idea.

    THAT is how it works.

    So next time you feel like posting yet or reading yet another article such as ” What your flight attendant really thinks of you” or ” Life in the mile high club” remember that the knucklehead behind that brilliant piece of literary fiction is somebody you have paid to do that.

    And people wonder why there’s this general dislike for airlines and their employees? Hilarious.

  5. In Better news, Jeffro is gone, albeit with a golden parachute so maybe there’s hope for redemption for some of the truly evil elements to be expunged that have infiltrated this sordid corporate ladder.

    Let that be a lesson to all of you. You’re all expendable and if your attitude is like his. The door’s that way as well. Don’t let it hit you in the keester on the way out.

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