First Class “Used to Be a Better Meal, Now It’s a Better Life”

In the film Jerry Maguire, Renee Zellweger looks forward from the coach cabin and tells her son, ” First class, that’s what’s wrong. It used to be a better meal, now it’s a better life.”

Except… she’s flying domestically and so that statement hardly seems true at all.

Jeff Martin passes along an Atlanta Journal Constitution piece on Delta’s investments in their premium cabin product that can’t resist the urge to frame the issue as the haves and have nots.

Over the years, airlines have been squeezing more seats into the back of the plane and have removed some extras like free checked bags and meals. Now, much of their attention is on ever-more luxurious seats and amenities for those up front, where the profits are.

The comparison really doesn’t hold water at all. Coach hasn’t actually gotten meaningfully worse, domestic first class hasn’t gotten better. International premium cabins have largely improved, but that’s almost exclusively a function of the seats (hard product) rather than anything else.

International Premium Cabin Flying is Getting Better

That’s mostly because of the seats. Business class seats aren’t recliner chairs anymore, for the most part. Angled seats that were originally marketed as flat really weren’t, Singapore called them “spacebeds” but they were derisively referred to as “wedgie seats” since you’d slide down the angle and …. Although most “angled flat” seats aren’t really even that at all, they just have more recline and the legs go up further.

The international standard in business class has become the flat bed, something that international first class hasn’t always offered. It takes up more space. Delta offers a pretty good business product on many of their planes, but there’s aren’t even world-leading (the 747s have Sicma Aero Cirrus seats — tied for best in the world — and the A330s are getting them but the 777-200s have a lesser business seat, and their mainstay 767-300ERs are behind top standard as well.

And I’ve written in the past that business class is all about the seat. The most important function has gotten better. Some ancillary services have as well. That much is true. But it’s a mistake to conflate the back and front of the plane without drawing e domestic vs. foreign distinction, and the improvements haven’t come at the expense of coach (which in many cases offers a better travel experience than it did in the recent past as well).

Domestic First Class Isn’t Getting Better

US customers should probably be thrilled, I suppose, with the domestic first class products that American carriers offer. Asian airlines offer better regional products, to be sure, but the forward cabin inside the U.S. is far superior than the intra-Europe variety that’s generally just a blocked middle seat and no incremental legroom, plus food and drink. I was speaking with a British Airways executive last week who lamented the fact that they even needed to offer a forward cabin, suggesting that they offer it as a loss but it’s necessary for their intercontinental business — that customers booking premium cabins from London to destinations beyond Europe expected to be offered a premium seat for the feeder flight as well. (That’s not really correct of course — if they’d lose revenue from premium flights without Club Europe, then they should be attributing more of the revenue from those tickets to the Club Europe segment, it sounds to me like poor accounting on their part.)

But on the whole US domestic premium cabins are worse than they were 10 years ago. That’s certainly the case in terms of catering.

My first upgrade came 15 years ago this month. My first full year out of school I earned airline elite status for the first time, and the first upgrade I received was on a transcon flying Los Angeles – Washington Dulles aboard a United 777. There were many more widebody aircraft flying domestically back then, which came with better seats (those old recliner-style business class seats). And even though it was “only” business and didn’t get the full first class meal service — United would service cheesecake in business class but ice cream sundaes with dinner in two-cabin domestic first — things were still served in courses.

I still remember that meal. And at the time travelers would lament what had been lost relative to bygone days. I was served an almond-dusted shrimp appetizer, with plenty of shrimp, followed by a steak for my entrée.

Back around late spring 2001 United began cutting back its domestic first class meal service. The introduction of a ‘gourmet’ cheeseburger was controversial, and derided as hardly befitting first class food. But it was a good cheeseburger, much better than what’s sometimes offered in domestic first these days, with better quality ingredients and sides.

By all means, consider this all to be a #firstworldproblem but that misses the point. I’m not complaining about losing my steak when I fly domestically. I’m just suggesting it’s not the case of domestic first class getting objectively ‘better’ while the flying experience gets worse in back. Because domestic first hasn’t gotten objectively better.

Coach Flying Hasn’t Demonstrably Gotten Worse

Airfares have gone up since the Great Recession, but in inflation-adjusted terms they’re still materially lower than 10 years ago and much lower than 20 years ago — even when you add in ancillary fees.

So even though customers are paying more for their checked bags than back when those were bundled into ticket prices, they aren’t actually paying more than they were in the not too distant past.

And there’s been no meaningful reduction in seat pitch in domestic coach cabins (outside of Spirit Air). American used to offer “more room throughout coach” with every seat offering 33-34 inches between them (rather than the standard 31 inches). That business model didn’t work because people wouldn’t pay more for the seats.

But now we have more premium economy/extra legroom products across the board — from United, Delta, and American and also of course from JetBlue.

While meals may no longer be free (Continental was for a long time a holdout in offering free meals, or things approximating meals), with ticket prices lower in real terms than 10 and 20 years ago it’s not really the case that you pay more for a ticket and meal than you did before.

Plus — and I flew a coach segment on American on Sunday and had their buy on board brisket sandwich (admittedly comped to me as a 100,000 mile flyer) — I find that buy on board food is better than what we used to be offered for free. When people complain about the lack of free food, they quickly forget that airplane food used to be the butt of jokes. And frankly my sandwich on Sunday in coach tasted darned good.

The criticism that is true is that cabins are more full than they used to be. You used to get empty seats next to you much more often than before. So coach passengers may get less elbow room than they used to (which they didn’t used to pay for).

Airlines are better at constraining capacity, and at putting the right sized aircraft on a route, than they used to be. So there’s no free extra space. And when passengers are displaced, there’s much less slack in the system to just get onto another flight. Which makes having status during irregular operations really helpful, popping to the top of a waitlist. But that’s not really the flight experience itself.

One thing that full flights does do is make overhead bin space precious. Just be sure you aren’t the actual last to board and use the first overhead space you see in coach rather than waiting until you get all the way back to your seat. Or get the airline’s co-branded credit card.

For what it’s worth, the article pieces together several non-sequitors such as,

Delta also recently announced plans to make elite status even more elite, by raising the bar to reach “Medallion” status in its SkyMiles frequent flier program to require a minimum level of spending in addition to miles flown.

How making the status harder to obtain has any bearing on the quality of the international business class product is hard to discern, since Delta is the least generous with international upgrades of any of the major North American carriers (requiring purchase of nearly full fare tickets that are often as pricey as discounted advance purchase business) and even less generous than British Airways is (where you can upgrade premium economy to business for very few miles).

But then the claim that coach is getting worse while premium cabins get better also gives short shrift to the pimped out entertainment that Delta has in its inflight seatbacks, and the penetration of inflight wireless internet — not just offered throughout mainline flights (as American does) but also in regional jets. That’s for everyone, something no coach passengers had 10 years ago.

Ultimately planes are crowded, fares are historically reasonable, and airlines are investing in their product across the board — with a recognition that premium passengers pay an outsized portion of the bills. It would be great to see more articles highlighting the inflight improvements without trying to turn it into an us-versus-them discussion by stretching facts.

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. From the What it’s Worth Department… we just flew LY (EL AL) on the $337 R/T fare TLV/JFK in coach. N.B. I haven’t flown coach longhaul in ages.

    Anyway, the 2 meals we were served were a pleasant surprise. The best meals I’ve eaten in coach. My comparison is to domestic coach of yesteryear and SQ coach JFK/FRA. What’s the world coming to when you can get a good meal in the back!

  2. I don’t sit transcon coach much, but when I do, the brisket sandwich is often better than what I get on the midcon meals in 1st. I have on occasion (when AA was offering that terrible beef quesadilla) asked for the coach meal even when sitting in 1st, though it’s often sold out.

  3. Excellent commentary Gary. Perhaps you could send a copy to the Atlanta Journal Constitution as a letter to the editor or guest column.

    I would disagree with you on one point. Coach HAS gotten demonstrably worse – no meals, more passengers, no free bags, etc. As you correctly point out, of course, the prices have gotten demonstrably cheaper as well. The first big plane trip I remember was DTW-LAX back in the early 1980s, ticket price ~$350. That should be around $800 with inflation, but I can find it online for $268 with Spirit ($127 in 1985 dollars).

    That’s the key factor these kinds of articles always leave out – some sort of amenities/inflation-adjusted price economic analysis. In 1985 we paid airplane fares and got airplane service. Now we pay bus fares and get bus service.

    What Renee Zellweger fails to realize is that back in the “good old days” she wouldn’t have been able to afford a coach ticket!

  4. I think the historical airfare price comparison is not a valid point, even if it is inflation adjusted, as many products or services have gotten cheaper over time. I think while there are some advances in the hard productfor coach, the quality of service has taken a nose dive.

  5. Some products may have gotten cheaper but I’m sure airplanes and their constituent parts are more expensive. Certainly the consumables like fuel have gone up in price.

    As for service, I think that’s cultural. I’ve had excellent service in coach on European and Asian carriers. Surly old FAs seem to be primarily a US phenomenon.

    Mind you, if I had to deal with the great unwashed masses found in coach on domestic flights these days I’d be surly too. It must be hard to start your career as a real flight attendant in the Golden Age of Travel and end up as a glorified waitress peddling co-branded credit cards on the Sky Greyhound.

  6. As an obscure but applicable datapoint–in 1960 my mother flew BA to the United States. Cost of her r/t coach ticket to my poor dad, an MP in the Air Force–$800 in USD!!!!

  7. I don’t even really pay attention to the meal. It’s all about the seat… and flat-bed is the way to go now!

    I had a really great meal on Qatar Airways first class, but the seat was not flat-bed. Granted, the flight was only Frankfurt to Qatar, but given the Salvatore Ferragamo accessories, pajamas and five course meal, I would have been far happier to give all that up for another 10 degrees of recline! 🙂

  8. Personally, I’m hoping that the increased profitability of the USA airlines causes them to improve their domestic first class product, particularly the food and drink. The drink has always been uninspiring (I’d love more cocktails, sparkling wine and micro-beers) but the food has been getting increasing bad, particularly on UA. Even as a 1K, getting a domestic UA upgrade can be quite challenging and when you get it — even on a long dinner flight — you could easy wonder what all the fuss is about. I’ve been served “dinner” on 1300 mile flights that could be rivaled by a hot pocket. As you mention, the coach meals that Executive Platinums can get for free (and others can pay modest sums for) on AA can be better than UA’s FC food.

  9. I just flew business in AA’s new 77W on DFW-LHR-DFW, and it really is tremendously better. International hard product has really taken a leap forward with AA.

  10. I’ve been flying internationally for 40 years. I think it was Pan Am that introduced international business class with its Clipper Class around 1980. Back then even international First class seats weren’t very good to sleep in.

    The single biggest advance in air travel has been the full lie flat seats in F and C which actually let you arrive having gotten some good sleep.

    The food is definitely what it once was, in any class nor domestic vs. international. But there are so many more flights, and the development of the regional service and alliances mean that there are so many options to go anywhere we want to go practically at any time.

    I do agree that domestic hasn’t changed all that much in coach, that the Economy Plus product is great, and that if anything domestic F has gotten worse, esp. in quality of food and service by FAs.

  11. To quote the flight attendant on a recent trip in F CLT-MBJ, “I can’t give out seconds of pretzels because the basket has to last for the return flight to Charlotte.”

  12. Sorry, Gary, but your post is just not politically correct. Every article about everything now has to pound on the theme of rising income inequality. If the government is going to keep growing at 10% per year, adjusted for inflation, it’s going to need more and more tax dollars to feed that growth. The only way to justify those infinitely rising taxes is to demonize anyone who makes more than a lower class wage as stealing from the poor. Unless, of course, you are a government bureaucrat making $400K a year, in which case never mind. So the premium class cabins must be getting more and more decadently luxurious, at the expense of the peasants in the cattle car in the back. No facts required for this a priori argument.

  13. “Airfares have gone up since the Great Recession, but in inflation-adjusted terms they’re still materially lower than 10 years ago and much lower than 20 years ago”

    I’ve seen this fact cited by a number of bloggers, but I find it impossible to reconcile with my personal experience. Until a few years ago, I can’t remember ever having paid more than $500 for a domestic or Europe ticket. Twenty years ago I remember routinely paying sub $400 (sometimes as low as $200) prices for out-of-season flights to Europe. As little as three summers ago I paid $500 for JFK-BCN in August. Now, it’s hard to find anything for under $800 in the dead of winter and $1400 in the summer. $200 NYC-SFO were not uncommon even 10 years ago.

  14. I get into this debate CONSTANTLY with people.

    I agree with your article, though I think the easiest reply to the referenced article would be:

    Airlines are trying to make the most return on investment capital. They would have no reason to improve their intl premium cabin offering if it didn’t make money.

  15. @Larry in NYC –

    I think you are missing the point – – sub $400 tickets to Europe TWENTY YEARS AGO are now valued at $700 or so in today’s $$, you can STILL fly to Europe on the cheap out of season – which is Gary’s point exactly . . . airfare hasn’t gotten more expensive when adjusted for inflation

    TONS of deals out there if your are flexible and know where to look. Here is one good place to start:

  16. “there’s been no meaningful reduction in seat pitch in domestic coach cabins (outside of Spirit Air).”

    Southwest recently reduced its formerly class-leading seat pitch by 1.5 inches (except in their 737-800’s), using thinner seats. They call it their Evolve interior and they claim it’s an improvement. Tall passengers know that it’s a devaluation of the product. Furthermore there is only 1 seat in the aircraft with extra legroom, down from 4.

    Southwest has added Wifi but taken away the ability to use a full-size laptop, something which was quite feasible with the 2011 seat pitch.

  17. What is amazing is that I still remember my first time in first class. 1989. America West PHX to ORD. Got upgraded after volunteering to be bumped. It was great. I do not know what I ate exactly, but it was great. Ruined my fore vet.

  18. @iahphx: Domestic F keeps getting downgraded because most of the F seats are filled with upgrades rather than paid fares. Why invest in a premium product when no one’s buying it?

    @LarryInNYC: I agree that European fares seem to have gone up more than domestic or Asian destinations. There’s a lack of competition since the TATL joint ventures effectively reduce the number of carriers across the pond to 3. I’m sure there’s a fair bit (or should that be “fare” bit) of price collusion happening as well. No doubt we’ll eventually see the same great consumer benefits on TPAC flights.

  19. Coach has too many overweight people ( we as a society are just taller and wider) and too much overhead bin cargo. In the 60s and early 70s, it was unheard of carry on luggage, in fact overhead bins were very limited to a briefcase and a coat.

    But to be fair most of the new generation planes are offering IFE and quite honestly there is no need for a meal service if the flight is less than 3 hours. A coke and a package of Scottish shortbread would do just fine.

  20. I completely disagree with the statement “Coach Flying Hasn’t Demonstrably Gotten Worse”

    United used to block the adjacent seat for me as a 1K, now they do not. There are more US domestic flights on regional jets now than there were any time in the past.

    AA had MRTC, then they added rows. Admittedly they are adding some extra legroom seats now but still worse than the MRTC days.

  21. MRTC is not an example of coach getting worse. It’s an example of an AA experiment in making coach better, hoping folks would pay a few dollars more for more space. They didn’t and AA had to put the original seats back the way they were in the first place.

    And yes, as an Exc Plat AA would block the seat next to me too. But only because they had empty seats to block. When fuel prices went thru the roof, and business travel declined, everyone cut back on their flights. Now they manage seating capacity to ensure full flights, and still are not making any money. That doesn’t mean coach is getting worse for the average person.

  22. @RobertHanson what country do you live in? In the U.S. both our Federal and State governments have been shrinking since the Great Recession. It’s much of the reason our economy here isn’t growing as fast as it should – growing private sector and shrinking public sector are cancelling each other out. If bureaucrats in your country are paid more than the President of the United States, then you really do have problems!

    Anyway, Gary’s well-written article is on point out everywhere but fails to mention one serious problem in the airline industry – salaries. There no longer is any reason for anyone to make the industry their career. From Captain to F/A to Ramp to management, it no longer is worth it. As a result, many bright and skilled people have left the industry and won’t return because they can easily double or triple their salaries doing something else. It has resulted in an industry brain drain of epic proportion that won’t be reversed in the foreseeable future.

  23. @FirstClassFlyer ” In the U.S. both our Federal and State governments have been shrinking since the Great Recession.” That’s not *quite* accurate. Federal employment has fallen slightly, but federal contractors have increased and federal spending has increased. And I’d take issue with your claim that being an airline pilot is no longer remunerative.. 😉

  24. @Gary I standby my comment – Federal and State governments are smaller, they are not growing by 10% yearly. You could be right about contractors, don’t know. Overall Federal spending is at about 24% of GDP, which is higher than historical, but not by much and entirely due to spending on items that are traditionally used as tools to mitigate recessions. As for State – those governments have shrunk, not grown since 2009. But all of it is besides your original points made in the column.

    So lets talk about salaries. Let’s say you want to be a pilot for a major today and you’ve just gotten in your hours to be able to fly for a regional operator. Starting salary? Less than $30k. Starting salary in 1990? About the same. Starting F/A? Around $18k. Starting salary in 1990? Around $18k. The industry is about five years away from a serious pilot shortage because fewer future pilots are willing to sign up for that sort of grind for that sort of pay.

    How about a middle manager? As everyone knows at any company, the real hard work done in management is done at the middle. Interested in knowing what middle managers make at major carriers? Around $55k. Have you tried to hire a competent, educated, smart, and driven person for that kind of money recently? Can’t find them – at least not in major cities. So airlines are left with hiring the B (or C) list folks to replace experienced people that have either left or retired. This isn’t meant to denigrate anyone, its a matter of fact that’s true in every other American industry. If you want top talent, you have to pay for it. If you can’t pay for it, you aren’t going to get top talent.

    So airlines spend their talent dollars on Finance people. And when Finance people get a hold of something as subjective as a comfortable seat or a hot meal, you wind up with 31″ pitch, no meals, and ancillary fees that would make a cell phone company blush.

    I’m merely pointing out that there is a real human side to fares not keeping pace with inflation. For airlines employees, it’s not so glamorous anymore either.

  25. @FirstClassFlyer – “Federal and State governments are smaller, they are not growing by 10% yearly.”

    “Not growing by 10% yearly” isn’t the same as “smaller”

    “Overall Federal spending is at about 24% of GDP, which is higher than historical, but not by much”

    About 20% higher

    “and entirely due to spending on items that are traditionally used as tools to mitigate recessions.”

    The increase is now built into the CBO baseline.

    “So lets talk about salaries. Let’s say you want to be a pilot for a major today and you’ve just gotten in your hours to be able to fly for a regional operator. Starting salary? Less than $30k.”

    A good chunk of airline pilots skip regionals and come out of the military, but the regional route isn’t new, it’s similar to the path 15 years ago too.

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