Do Coach Passengers Suffer Because First Class is Getting Worse?

The world’s worst travel columnist, Christopher Elliott – because he almost always seems to get his facts wrong, or bends facts to suit his preferences – says first class is getting worse – and that’s bad for coach passengers.

Here he seems mainly to point to American Airlines, without saying so, making the sweepingly general claim that:

  • seats are smaller
  • bathrooms are smaller

American’s ‘Oasis’ retrofit of Boeing 737 aircraft, on pause until the New Year, has replaced generous legroom first class seats with less comfortable, less padded seats without meaningful underseat storage. That’s worse than it used to be.

He also repeats the claim that “[t]he planes are cheaply made” in “the last three or four years” which may be a reference to the Boeing 737 MAX but really has little to do with first class amenities.

Regarding the non-premium transcon products of major U.S. airlines Elliott says “Seats have shrunk. Leg rests vanished. The food is barely edible, and the service is unacceptable.” Leg rests on U.S. airline domestic narrowbodies weren’t a thing four years ago, though Elliott may not realize that.

It’s not clear to me that service has meaningfully deteriorated in this time period on Delta or Alaska, or for that matter Southwest which doesn’t offer a first class. American’s meal service, while unappealing to me, is better than it was September 2014 – May 2015 when they had instituted US Airways meals service standards. So it’s actually better than it was about four years ago!

Elliott claims that coach has become worse because first class has gotten worse, “as first class falls off a cliff, the good people in the back of the plane suffer, too.” It seems like the opposite would be an easier case to make, that first class doesn’t need to be as good to differentiate itself once coach gets worse.

He says first class has gotten worse because:

  1. Fewer domestic widebodies This doesn’t affect most markets, but no doubt seats designed for long haul flying are more comfortable than those designed for short haul. Elliott attributes this to a drive towards fuel efficiency, therefore inadvertently setting up a tradeoff between passenger comfort and the environment.

  2. Upgrades “When your first class seat is “free,” you get what you pay for.” This makes no sense since 15 years ago 90% of domestic first class seats were occupied by passengers on awards or upgrades, and today at Delta it’s perhaps 30% while at American around 50%.

  3. Nomenclature “Of course, most airlines don’t even bother calling it first class anymore. It’s now “business” class, as if renaming it can somehow lower our collective expectations.” Oddly Elliott doesn’t name any airlines, U.S. airlines still generally offer the ‘first class’ moniker while airlines elsewhere in the world describe similar products as business class.

Here’s a proof point I can barely even follow,

Gail Cunard, a retired CEO from Savannah, Georgia, says first class today is “appalling.” On her latest flight to California, her first-class ticket didn’t even get her into the first-class lounge. There was no priority seating for her, no in-flight snack.

“The menu was nothing to rave about,” she adds. “And the meals were served on plastic plates.”

There was no inflight snack but apparently there was a meal. The complaint about the meal was about the servingware. There was no “priority seating” in first class, where the passenger had an assigned seat.

And domestic first class lacked airport lounge access, which doesn’t reflect a change in policy over the past several years. Alaska Airlines has provided lounge access to paid and award first class passengers flying domestically, but they’re unique in that regard. Instead U.S. airlines have charged for lounge memberships, dating to the mid-1970s (as a result of anti-discrimination rules).

Christopher Elliott bends himself into a pretzel to support whatever new narrative produces a pro-consumer, anti-business, populist column. He used to argue that coach passengers were subsidizing first class. He used to argue that loyalty programs are bad for you and should be avoided and also that the existence of first class was an affront to democracy.

Usually Elliott seems to forget which direction traffic flowed over the Berlin Wall, and indeed not to realize that even North Korea’s Air Koryo and Cuba’s Cubana de Aviacion offer business class. Now he appears to want better first class because he thinks it’ll help coach?

Though today’s solution is to avoid airlines with first class and fly Alaska Airlines (which offers first class):

The solution is simple: Whenever possible, fly on airlines that treat all of their customers well. A one-class airline like Southwest, where all passengers have adequate leg space, stands out. The old JetBlue, before it foolishly embraced the class system, comes to mind, too. Even a carrier like Alaska Airlines, which has a premium class, is worth recommending.

‘Premium class’ is Alaska’s extra legroom coach product, but of course they’re in the process too of making first class worse on legacy Virgin America planes (less legroom, no leg rests).

Why does anyone publish this dreck?

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. I saw this yesterday and laughed. Seeing the poor quality of the “travel experts” many media outlets use makes me wonder about their “experts” in other areas.

  2. Wait…domestic first class is getting worse, so to do something about that, we’re supposed to fly Southwest? He’s just throwing stuff at the wall and then making the point he wants to make which is: I don’t like that first class exists so you shouldn’t use it either.

  3. Hahah – god. He makes no sense! My dog could blog more accurately! Thanks for the laugh this morning

  4. The only explanation is that he gets paid by the word. The drivel he spews is an absolute joke, just like the pub he writes for.

  5. His analysis is laughable. That said, a handful of airlines did offer lounge access for domestic First Class pax well into the 2000s, including America West.

  6. I read this yesterdsy and halfway through I wanted to start taking odds on how fast Gary would respond. Thanks for not letting me down!

  7. “Gail Cunard, a retired CEO from Savannah, Georgia, says first class today is “appalling.” On her latest flight to California, her first-class ticket didn’t even get her into the first-class lounge. There was no priority seating for her, no in-flight snack.”

    Gary…100% guarantee this was the woman you saw getting sat at a Priority Pass restaurant and asking the hostess, “So where is the lounge?” haha

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