Attention Christopher Elliott: Frequent Flyer Programs are Ladders of Opportunity

Christopher Elliott, who likely deserves a patent on making unsupported — and unsupportable — claims in columns about travel, has a new one: “Have travelers lost the class war?

He pegs his piece on class warfare in the skies on the introduction of American’s new premium configuation Airbus A321 which will begin flying New York JFK – San Francisco next month. Oddly the class warfare didn’t begin when the plane started flying JFK – Los Angeles last month. Nor did lie flat seats on either route generate a class war when those were first offered by the incumbent competitors on the routes.

Here’s the meat of Elliott’s class struggle argument:

Meanwhile, ordinary passengers languish in crowded waiting areas and are wedged into airline seats that seem to shrink between flights. When they complain, they’re often angrily told by disgruntled airline employees that they get what they pay for.

The airline’s highest-spending customers are being lavished with more, while the rest give up their last shred of dignity, such as a humane amount of legroom and seat width or the ability to check a bag without paying extra. If it’s not bolted down in steerage class, there’s a charge for it these days. What’s more, this class conflict is playing itself out across the entire travel industry.

The divide between rich and poor has never been more obvious than in the air. And the airline industry has become quite comfortable with our collective deprivation

The film Jerry Maguire did a much better job framing the issue, when Renee Zellweger’s character looks forward from the coach cabin and up to where Tom Cruise is sitting and tells her son,

    First class, that’s what’s wrong. It used to be a better meal, now it’s a better life.

Elliott’s class struggle claims — devoid of facts — ignore key realities:

  • Coach travel isn’t actually ‘getting worse’ in any material sense, seat pitch isn’t being reduced, and indeed extra legroom seating in coach has become more widespread.
  • Coach travel is getting less expensive (in inflation-adjusted prices, inclusive of fees).
  • Domestic premium cabin travel is actually getting worse.
  • Only international premium services, and a handful of New York – West Coast routes, are improving.

Coach now features internet, and in some cases pimped out inflight entertainment (on many Delta planes, and the future is bright with servers to stream video on demand). Coach pitch hasn’t decreased.

The meals up front on domestic flights ain’t what they used to be. My first upgrade on United was a cross country flight in which I got a shrimp appetizer and steak for lunch, served in courses. I used to get crab cakes flying Chicago – Baltimore on United. When the ‘gourmet cheeseburger’ was introduced in 2001 it was shocking that first class could offer a burger. Fifteen years later I long for the burger to be gourmet…

Meanwhile, inflation-adjusted airfares are about 15% lower than they were in 1995.

Even including fees, airfares are down about 37% since 1979 in inflation-adjusted terms.

That means more people can fly than ever before. That’s democratizing the skies. And it doesn’t even count the advent of free frequent flyer award tickets, which Elliott despises, but which provide millions of free trips each year… including in premium cabins to the masses who would not otherwise pay.

And the frequent flyer programs and credit card rewards programs are themselves a great democratizer.

It isn’t the wealthy that are cherished by the airlines, it’s the middle class middle manager logging a hundred thousand miles butt in seat each year.

And the miles earned by the middle class, including through their credit cards (more miles are earned via credit cards than flying), allow access to premium cabin frequent flyer awards — they open up a domain that was once the exclusive cabin of the privileged. Now anyone with a Visa, a MasterCard, and American Express who saves their miles can fly up there.

So Elliott gets it exactly backwards. Previously only money bought privilege, now many more of us can access it in the sky.

First class is always and everywhere better than coach. But that doesn’t mean coach is getting worse, or domestic first getting better, and it isn’t necessarily the rich who are accessing first class either — more and more the middle class have access to the skies, and even to the front of the curtain separating the cabins.

Elliott concludes,

The more stratified the travel industry becomes, the further we get from the dignified experience everyone deserves.

In that world, we’d be better off staying home.

… likely because he can’t accept that frequent flyer programs are ladders of opportunity.

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. Is this extreme envy you have of Chris Elliott healthy? Maybe you can use your Membership Rewards points to pay for a shrink. Or a good class on statistical analysis.

    Where you lost all credibility was with the mention of credit card rewards programs. The frequently devalued miles you earn come at a cost.

  2. Gary,

    I agree with most of what you say here, but you miss the mark when you argue that “coach travel isn’t actually ‘getting worse’ in any material sense.” I can’t believe that you can say that if you regularly travel coach. Yes there are fee-based perks like “extra-leg room,” but the vast majority of people on any commercial flight don’t enjoy that perk. Instead, their leg room has shrunk to accommodate those up-sale seats. Those non “extra-leg room” people are the “ordinary passengers” who comprise the majority of passengers on any given flight, and who are in fact having a worse flight experience today than they were 10 or 15 years ago (albeit, as you point out, they are paying less for it).

  3. While I can see what Elliott is getting at, he seems to miss this crucial point entirely: air travel, at its inception, was a hallmark of class warfare since only the very wealthy could afford it at all. For everyone else, there was the train or a car/bus.

    And as fares have gone down, so have the services provided. I wouldn’t say they’ve decreased at the same rate, but the rude flight attendant he mentions in the story is, sadly, correct: you get what you pay for. With deregulation and pax searching for the lowest fare, you can’t expect meals or free booze on every flight, especially when airlines routinely run flights with zero or negative revenue.

    All that notwithstanding, American carriers are far behind their Asian and European competitors in nearly every facet of their soft and hard products. But, as the history of air travel goes and whether or not there’s a class struggle in the skies, Mr. Elliott is quite incorrect.

  4. While the inflation-adjusted airfare now might be 15% less than in 1995, the primary issue squeezing the middle class is the much higher price of non-discretionary spend items over the past two decades.

    Much of the middle class does not have discretionary spend for airfare, even if it is relatively less compared to the 1990s.

    From NerdWallet Jan 2014:

    Why did indebtedness plateau in 2011? As the economy limps forward, credit card companies increasingly loosen their lending standards. Confident that consumers will be able to pay off their debts, the issuers allow more people to borrow more money. NerdWallet expects household indebtedness to resume an upward trend in the coming years as creditors become more lenient.

    U.S. household consumer debt profile:
    ◾Average credit card debt: $15,270
    ◾Average mortgage debt: $149,925
    ◾Average student loan debt: $32,258

  5. This article is flat out wrong on so many levels. I think you have lost touch with reality. Give up your miles and tricks for a year, fly coach and live and learn how awful it is now.

  6. Coach pitch really has decreased in the last few years. Airlines have been adding a row of seats using thinner seats and falsely claiming that legroom is not reduced. My knees beg to differ. It’s definitely a tighter fit. On this point Chris Elliott is right.

    As you write, international first and business are improving. Decades ago we thought the future would have faster travel, but airlines have instead attempted to make the trip SEEM shorter — for those customers willing to pay top dollar.

  7. @JC

    Let’s establish your credibility first. The frequently devalued miles you speak of have not devalued faster than the opportunity to earn them.

    These days, if your time is not directly compensated at a rate high enough to buy F/J tickets, you have another option to spend some time building up a mileage pool and redeeming for those same tickets.

    Otherwise, you end up with an industry that’s had historically high labor costs, with relatively recent high fuel costs. They can’t give it all away, or you end up with a bunch of bankrupt airlines – it’s not theory, it happened multiple times. There are various economic models on how to do that – DL, AA and UA do it by competing for premium fare yelds and trying to get more pax in coach. None of those airlines can be currently described as “insanely profitable” either. B6 and WN do it a little more democratically, mostly all coach flights competing on fares and fees. These guys are also profitable. There’s room in the market for both, and if you don’t like the former group, then try to figure out another way to get from tiny city A to tiny city B, because the latter group can’t afford to fly there.

  8. @nsx It has, but fares are also cheaper as Gary correctly pointed out. The resulting option to buy more legroom without making the jump to the front cabin is pretty reasonable. If not, there’s sometimes the option to fly B6.

  9. ” The frequently devalued miles you earn come at a cost.”

    There are quite a few mileage earning credit cards with no annual fee for the first year, including AA, UA, and Delta. The amount of potential cashback one forfeits for the minimum spend on these cards is miniscule. The lost cashback for the personal AA card is @$66, and provides enough miles from the sign up bonus alone for a R/T coach ticket to Europe, or a one-way business class award to Europe.

    Gary would lose all credibility with me if he didn’t keep me informed of the myriad opportunities available from cc signups and usage.

    As for coach pitch, we all get what most people are willing to pay for. Years ago AA tried marketing “more room thru coach”, but then gave it up when it turned out that didn’t increase sales. Folks would book with whoever was a dollar or too cheaper, regardless of the pitch. Then complain about the uncomfortable seat, of course.

    A number of airlines now have economy plus seats with increased legroom. Since that means fewer seats in a given space that costs more. Most people would rather buy the cheapest ticket they can get, and complain, rather than pay the extra cost for a better seat.

  10. Chris Elliott is a tool. I suggest doing the exact opposite of what he advises about everything. You will likely be right more often than not.

  11. Perhaps Mr. Elliott would prefer the good old days where regulation prevented airlines from competing on price, and instead they competed on service, but priced the “ordinary passenger” completely off the plane.

    C’mon. Mr. Elliott it completely myopic here and refuses to recognize that lesser service is the bitter the “ordinary passenger” must take with the sweet of having access to air travel at all.

  12. Gary – we all know Chris Elliott is not particularly great with the facts but in your die hard hatred for him, you’re also bending the facts.

    1. Coach comfort is indeed decreasing – sure, “pitch” may stay the same but AA, DL, and UA are all installing slimline seats which are substantially less comfortable than older generation economy seats and also have less padding

    2. AA and DL are both reducing extra legroom seating on their new configs – witness AA dumping MCE seats to create more J seats on their 763 reconfigs.

    3. If we ignored the last two years, sure we could say coach travel costs are declining but the last two years have shown substantial increases.

    Far too many premium travelers live in the deluded world that they drive airline profits. Airlines need everyone to make it work. That being said, some airlines only needed cheap travelers to be profitable but no one has made an airline work with only premium travelers (OpenSkies is a clear failure).

  13. Chris Elliott is a necessary evil- what if he talked about immense value in FF programs? The more positive attention FF programs get, the easier it is for them to devalue.

    Gary, your obsession with him is strange.

  14. As someone else stated, Chris Elliott is a tool. Perhaps he should stick to Greyhound then he wouldn’t have to be bothered by the haughty 1% who infest the up front seats on airplanes and trains.

    Unfortunately, other bloggers only drive more traffic to his ramblings when y’all talk about his retarded comments.

  15. Elliott appeals to the masses, that’s his target audience. He’s not writing to the 75-100K mile traveler, which I’m fine with.

  16. Mr. Elliott identifies the greatest weakness in many “consumer advocates'” attitude – some people would sooner pay the price for a terrible experience than the price for what he calls “the dignified experience everyone deserves”. Here, it is the consumers, not the providers who have driven the race to the bottom, making it clear through their purchasing habits that they will forego frills for a lower price. I wish Mr. Elliott would spend his energy identifying what a the “dignified” experience to which all are apparently entitled costs and just who will provide it at that cost. Only then will any airline perceive that the customer might be to pay for a dignified experience. But Mr. Elliott is loathe to blame the consumers for bringing anything upon themselves.

  17. From Mr. Elliott’s article:

    “Just ask Alireza Yaghoubi, the chief technology officer at AirGo Design, a company with a clever idea for creating civilized economy-class seats. The technology exists to offer everyone on the plane ample legroom and space to move in coach class. But it would require a significant investment, and he says airlines prefer to sink that money into first-class passengers, who are deemed more valuable.

    “Airlines want us to either pay more or go through the same nightmarish experience every time,” says Yaghoubi. “That is a failed strategy which needs to be revised.”

    Well, a little research identifies the the “clever design” for economy class seats as:

    It has 1.5 meters (59 inches) of pitch

    and they propose a 1-2-2-2-1 seating arrangement for the lower deck of an A380.

    Sounds more like a mediocre business class than a cleverly designed economy class seat to me.

  18. @Anon – Reducing extra legroom seating isn’t a fair claim, since the comparison to the good old days of air travel predated the existence of extra legroom seating at all.

    Coach travel costs have seen a bump up over the past couple of years but they’re still near historic lows.

  19. @Ric Garrido – all of that can be true but it doesn’t mean flying is getting worse, it means everything else is…

  20. Sounds like someone needs to call Chris a Wwwwwambulance. I don’t know why you read his stuff. Even if he was right who says you have to settle for coach. Work hard for a living or at the mile game and you too have have a nice seat. Does he want everyone to be the same? Most likely. That’s how socialism works.

  21. Cross-subsidization.

    Full fare, business class, and first class travelers cross-subsidize a significant amount of coach travel. Low-income folks traveling on cheap fares should *thank* the very people Elliot demeans for paying disproportionately for the fixed costs of flying the planes. Chris Elliot hasn’t the economic literacy to comprehend this point, but it’s an important one.

  22. Gary I come from a line of Airline Employee’s my uncles started working for AA when they came back from WW II and were based at JFK, Their sons worked for AA and my own brother did too in SAN. I remember the days on travel in Y on AA’s 707 Astro Jets, lots of room and excellent meals. I also remember flying F, the FA’s would serve on transcon routes, roast beef that was carved at your seat, when the Three Class service was introduced, FC got a caviar service (just like LH) in the salad course, they have lobster meat and Crab. So what do you get today, private suit, and a meal that was served in Y 30 yrs ago. If AA REALLY wants to have a premium service, bring back the roast beef carved at your seat or the Caviar course… Take out two rows in Y and let the peeps back in Y stretch out some..

  23. DaninSTL stated what first came to my mind – the rather obvious everything-for-all-people attitude, rather like socialism. I have never bought into entitlement and sometimes Chris crosses that line. Chris is first and foremost a journalist and consumer advocate. Need I say more?

  24. @Pamela, not that I think you would dispute me, but consumer advocates have a role when it comes to fraud, bait and switch, and other sharp business techniques. But Mr. Elliott’s advocacy goes far beyond that (and as a “journalist”, as I identify in note 18 above, I posit he crosses the line from merely biased to deceitful). One may be a consumer advocate by encouraging providers to sell only bare bones services – even Spirit Air has a role in the world for the right segment. Mr. Elliott goes off the rails when he seemingly advocates an entitlement to more than the consumer is willing to pay and sets a floor for service higher than many care to pay.

    Mr. Elliott apparently objects to air travel ever providing little more than a Greyhound bus with wings. Yes, service may suck, but just what does Mr. Elliott say, in his parallel universe, to a Spirit Air passenger who, rather than paying for the “dignified experience everyone deserves”, must take a bus because he has had his way with minimum service levels?

    Again, I do not sense that you dispute my observations, but Mr. Elliott is not a consumer advocate. Rather he would seemingly limit the consumers range of choices, which I find to be terribly anti-consumer.

  25. Wow whatever happened to easy going discussion and debate? 🙂
    Can’t we all be a bit more polite and respectful to one another?
    We can all agree or disagree if someone is perfect in their reporting. But even if an article is not perfect is there is something you can take away from the piece?
    About what’s good or bad about the industry and its changes?
    I like Mr. Elliott even if he isn’t a perfect reporter.
    There are times he is spot on times he is not
    I take what I want from the article and like I do with many journalists walk away with what I believe is the relevant and the most factual information helpful to me personally.
    Appreciate the constructive respectful kind debate always

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