In Which I Actually Defend Travel Coverage in the New York Times

I rail at media stories about travel all of the time. I get the most exorcised when stories get facts wrong and imply things about travel that are plain untrue. I try not to get too excited by stories that miss what I consider to be important nuance. The elements of a story that matter to me are likely different than those of a general reader, and most publications aren’t really writing with me as the audience. I get that. And I do try to offer a little slack to general interest publications. There are writers who should know better, but on the whole travel coverage approximates what consumers want it to be, and I can’t really complain too loudly if broad audience articles don’t suit my particular taste.

And with that frame, I think that Jared Blank is more than a little unfair to a New York Times piece on domestic first class that I posted about over the weekend (disclosure: the piece includes one quote from me).

This piece, “Whatever Happened to First Class,” laments the long-lost days of luxurious first class travel. Now, the article suggests, travelers must suffer through multiple indignities while seated up front. While not paying for first class. Really, the article is saying that now that airlines basically give away first class to everybody, they’ve cut back on a couple of things.

I don’t think the tone of the piece is that domestic first class travelers are suffering, it’s trying to give New York Times readers a realistic view of domestic first cabins. And yes, it is clearly saying that the airlines are offering up most of the seats as upgrades (citing percentages for how many seats are actually sold in that cabin), and that along with that comes reductions in spending on amenities for those cabins. Makes sense.

The author starts by saying that when booking some recent first class travel, he looked forward to avoiding “the battles for overhead space, the wheelie-bag traffic jams, the knee-numbing legroom” one finds in coach nowadays.

That’s always been the case on the first two, no? Overhead space is actually improved on new aircraft, and people were never rushing to check bags, so overhead bins (since they were smaller back in the day – tell me the next time you’re on an old MD-80 if you like the overhead bin space) were full then, too. And legroom? JetBlue has 34″ throughout the cabin. Just about every airline allows you to either buy up to more legroom for a reasonable fee, or to grab a seat with more legroom if you have status.

Jared, Jared. Overhead bins are certainly more full than they were a decade ago despite some aircraft receiving larger bins. Aircraft are more full than they used to be, more passengers cramming their stuff in. And people do try to avoid checking bags more than they used when when checked bags flew free on most airlines.

And tell me all about those opportunities to buy up additional legroom on American and US Airways? Domestic first class provides more legroom in most aircraft than economy plus style seating on JetBlue or United in any case. And of course elbow room matters, too…

Oh, and I skipped the part where he complains about the towel he is given prior to takeoff in first class.

I don’t think he complained about it, he described it, the median hot towel in first class is hardly an elegant affair, the point of the piece is to realistically describe the offerings and he seems to be accomplishing that.

Putting that aside, when was first class flying an “enclave of elegance, fabulous fliers and VIPs?” 1957? I hate to break it to him, but he would not be flying in first class in 1957. Most people couldn’t afford flying in coach in 1957. Those of us of a certain age remember that the family trip to Florida involved driving 1200 miles to Florida, not flying. Why? Because it was very, very expensive to fly anywhere. And I’m not sure he should be blaming the airlines for a guy wearing a baseball hat and sweats in first class.

Take issue with the prose perhaps, but the piece deals directly with the changing character of flying, it quotes me precisely on the role of deregulation in driving down price, democratizing the skies, and how airlines no longer compete on services as a substitute for competing on price (which they hadn’t been legally permitted to do during the regulated era).

Further, perhaps the era of ‘fabulous fliers and VIPs’ is a bit overwrought, but there’s little question that domestic first class isn’t the experience it was even a dozen years ago, it was a regular occurrence then to get steak for lunch in a domestic cabin as part of multi-course service on a transcon.

Jared seems to think domestic first class is fabulous, I think Joe Brancatelli, quoted in the piece, is more dead on: “You go into first class because it’s less horrible than coach.” You get more legroom and elbow room, you’re more likely to get overhead space, depending on the flight distance you may get some food. It’s not glamorous. But it’s much better than sitting in back. And it’s also true that the amenities aren’t what they once were. And that this analysis doesn’t apply to international flying.

Jared says

I would add that while you can complain all you want, the state of the in-flight experience is better than it has ever been (depending on what is important to you).

And then proceeds to list all sorts of technology gains that are no different in first class than coach, so misses the point of the article which is the difference between the two.

There’s reasonable criticism, and unreasonable criticism, and the New York Times piece hardly seems to be an example of poor travel journalism to me…

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. Gary,

    Faithful reader, so I thought I’d comment on how little value there is in a blog critizing another blog for critizing a newspaper article. Next time, I’d leave it alone…

  2. It is a good analysis of NY Times Travel articles which many of us read. I found it spot on especially the observation that the 1% travel private on shared executive plane services. I knew that but somehow didn’t connect it to the state of domestic first class.

    I’m not familiar with Jared Blank but figure his opinions are followed by some in our community. It’s perfectly ok and I think useful to get Gary’s take on the same article.

  3. This seems like an argument over very little, but in my opinion Jared has the better points.

    The NYTimes reporter writes as if he’s “discovered” a major change in the domestic first class experience. I’ve been a OnePass Infinite Platinum for decades now. A lot has changed in the travel experience over that time, but relatively little has changed in the domestic first class experience on Continental (aka, United). Indeed, this is perhaps the greatest CONSTANT in air travel during that time period.

    Back in, say, the early ’90s, domestic first class was filled mostly by upgrading businessmen (yes, “men”) and today it’s filled mostly by upgrading businessmen. The seats were mediocre but 2 across, the service was somewhat attentive, the food was OK (better on transcon flights), there was a small but refreshing hot towel, the booze selection was limited but free, the entertainment was gratis (if there was any, there’s more now), you had a “private” bathroom, and you got to feel a little special. A lot has changed in American society (and certainly air travel) during that time, but little has changed in domestic first class.

    So when Jared criticizes the tendency of reporters to grumble about everything that’s bad about air travel, he has a point. This article is mostly about grumbling — and it’s grumbling about supposed downgrades that haven’t actually taken place. Sure, the first class experience pre-deregulation was undoubtedly different, but that’s nostalgia. Very, very few of the folks flying first class today would ever had gotten the chance to experience that.

    Now I suppose you could charitably look at this article in the context of “domestic first class travel isn’t that great.” And, in that sense, the author is correct. But I could have written this exact piece 20 years ago. So how is this “news”?

  4. The reason there is such difficulty in carrying on bags is the airline’s imposition of the fees for checked baggage policy which means everybody, excluding elites, tries to carry their items onboard to avoid paying the fees. Perhaps their is some way to alleviate this situation, one starting point would be for the airlines to install larger overhead bins, but this would then potentially reduce their revenue from checked baggage fees.

  5. I agree with Gary. As usual, the “times” would rather do a sarcastic hit piece on someone else’s article than bother to actually do a decent one on their own. Which would require, you know, some research, some original thought, some objectivity, ie some real journalism.

    Plus, they think they score some Progressive political points by putting down the “elite” class that they feel so superior to.

    That’s why no one reads the “times” {small caps intentional} any more.

  6. Southwest’s bins are typically not completely filled. That’s due to their free baggage policy. Southwest’s legroom is not knee-numbing either, although I worry about the recently announced change to thinner seats spaced closer together.

    If your row has an empty middle seat you will be halfway to a first-class level of comfort in coach. On Southwest you can maximize your chances of an empty middle by selecting a seat in the rows just aft of the window exits. These are the last to fill.

  7. I kinda liked Jared’s blog; but what do I know———–only flown First Class 6-8 times the First being when in 1971 when a FA on a NW flight asked me to move forward from the rear of the plane to First Class to help balance out the plane. I enjoyed the Chicken Oscar with wine.

  8. People thought you were silly in your last post on the subject, and people think you’re even sillier now. I would quit while you’re behind.

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