Is Domestic First Class Air Travel For The Poors?

Boarding a cross country flight as a perhaps 10 year old unaccompanied minor, I remember thinking that I would never fly first class. I’d never be rich enough to afford it, and even if I were, why would I spend more money for a bit of comfort that lasted only a few hours?

Little did I know that about a decade later I’d start flying first class, even though I wasn’t paying for it. I had graduated college and was flying for work and earning elite status, and had figured out how upgrades worked even for a lowly United Mileage Plus Premier member (now MileagePlus Premier Silver). Back then I was earning a salary in the $20s, and certainly wasn’t wealthy.

Over a quarter century later, commentator Richard Hanania observes that domestic airline first class isn’t for the wealthy, that the product is accessible to many, and occupied by those who choose to pay rather than strictly who has the most money.

Sex worker-turned data scientist Aella chimed in on the discussion to suggest that first class is also… upgrades.

  • Flying private is for the wealthy, although not exclusively so. In fact it’s just as much for teams of Walmart middle managers who can visit multiple rural stores in a day instead of spending a day on travel in each direction per store.

  • Upgrades are less of a thing than they used to be. Historically first class was populated by upgrades, received by the most frequent flyers who tended to be.. middle managers not even top executives. However with first class prices far less of a multiple of discount coach than they were two decades ago, more seats are being purchased leaving fewer unsold for upgrades.

  • First class just isn’t that expensive much of the time on domestic routes, so there’s no reason to expect it to be the province of the wealthy – unless you’re already defining wealthy in a way that encompasses the median airline passenger to begin with.

  • Domestic first class isn’t that good. It’s a bit of extra elbow room, and a small bit more legroom than ‘main cabin extra’ or ‘economy plus’ seats. It basically means that you can work, cheap wine and cocktails are included, along with a meal that you wouldn’t ever consider eating under normal circumstances.

    Indeed, it isn’t as good as it used to be. There’s less legroom and the meals are far cheaper too. An American Airlines Boeing 737 has 3 fewer inches at each seat than it used to. My first domestic premium cabin meal on United was an almond-dusted shrimp appetizer, followed by a proper steak entree at lunch.

Like Gordon Gekko said in Wall Street, wealth is not having to waste time. Domestic first class doesn’t get you that. It doesn’t get you to the airport, through the airport, or out of the airport materially faster. You’re still boarding half an hour before your flight for no reason other than to avoid having to gate check your carry on bag.

There are things many of us do to improve our efficiency, like CLEAR and PreCheck, like airport lounge access. But these are things of bourgeoisie bohemians rather than the wealthy as such. The closest most of us can come to avoiding the queuing hassles of travel is JSX, and American Airlines and the major pilot union want the government to outlaw it, once again making flights you show up for only 20 minutes prior to departure something only for the wealthy.

So Hanania is right that airline domestic first class isn’t a marker of wealth, since a large subset of passengers able to pay for air travel can pay for first class as well as it often isn’t that much more. But it hasn’t really ever been a marker of wealth.

Twenty years ago 90% of seats up front were going to upgrades, which frequently meant business travelers who weren’t poor by any stretch but often in the middle rungs of the corporate ladder. Who is flying up front has changed a bit, especially with managed business travel still down, but it hasn’t matched the mythology of the product in decades.

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. That tweet is the most ridiculous thing I’ve read online all month. I’m sure the myriad of footballers, celebrities, rock stars etc who have tattoos must be really poor. Rolls eyes. Likewise plenty of high level SVP/CEOs etc who are far from trim and don’t always travel in business attire traveling up front. I served the owner of a major UK football club several times in a grocery store when I was at college and they wore sweatpants and what people might think was pretty “scruffy” attire. Meanwhile “the poors” is pretty derogatory and makes you sound rather entitled

  2. Yeah that tweet is an absolutely absurd take. Your personal example is a FANTASTIC one, because you were a 20-something getting paid 20-something, but getting upgraded to F. How long ago was that?
    If 90% of First passengers were (unmonetized/free) upgrades – on tickets paid by their employers, then arguably F is wealthier NOW than it was before?
    At least the people in First class today pay to sit there instead themselves, and don’t rely on OPM to get there.

    So while F these days is objectively within reach for the masses, that’s a recent phenomenon. You wrote about this so you should be well aware. As airlines (led by AA, then DL) wanted to monetize F more, they first offered buy-ups to F, and then just started lowering the price for F altogether. Now with post-pandemic business travel not being what it was, the airlines have lowered the prices to what they are now. Domestic F used to be somewhere near 4x-6x the price of coach, but barely anyone paid that. Now it can be had for 1.5x-3x the price of coach and most/all are paying that.

  3. It is often not worth it to pay for first or business on short domestic routes unless one is to large to fit in an economy seat. All the wealthy people I know are very conservative in their spending and don’t have any desire to waste money on such a short experIence.

  4. This is terrible. Of course it saves time. I don’t need to get there 2 hours early. 60 min enuff. Priority check in means max 5 min wait. Also bypass security and on the plane first and off first and luggage first (well most of the time) which means out the airport and thru customs first. Dumbest article ever. Only facts is the upgrade options now with the premium credit cards etc. I only make approx $150k a year but haven’t travelled economy for over 5 years and I travel at least 3-4 times I. N America and to Europe 1-2 times a year. Again all Business class.

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