A decade ago conventional wisdom was that 10% of domestic first class seats were occupied by passengers on paid first class tickets.
Airlines used to charge sky high rates for first, didn’t really discount (other than through certain corporate agreements), and as a result they’d sell a few seats but most would be empty — and filled with upgraders, awards, and in the era before unlimited complimentary upgrades, employees.
When Alaska Airlines contemplated abolishing their first class cabin entirely, they ultimately decided to keep it to differentiate themselves among frequent flyers but determined they needed to earn a revenue premium for it.
Carriers started restricting the fare classes eligible for upgrades (Delta has for over a decade required a minimum fare domestically to use miles to upgrade if you aren’t elite) or adding a cash co-pay in addition to miles. United charges it only to non-elites, American and now US Airways even to elite frequent flyers.
And the airlines started selling first class seats at a lower multiple relative to coach. Instead of, say, 8x you can often buy first class for less than double. On a $300 roundtrip between DC and Miami I’ll frequently see certain flights available on American for ~ $550 in first class. This is restricted inventory, not last seat availability, but there’s no waiting out the upgrade game.
Of course carriers also sell cheap buy ups on day of departure, United flyers know this as upgrades for ‘Tens of Dollars’. But those are upgrades. The outright sale of first class at booking has been on the rise as first class has been priced more reasonably.
Brian Sumers updates on what that’s meant at Delta.
- In 2011, 31% of domestic first class passengers have paid to be there
- In 2012, 36% of domestic first class passengers have paid to be there
- In 2013, 40% of domestic first class passengers have paid to be there
- This year it’s about 45%
Delta’s goal for 2015 is to have half of their domestic first class seats occupied by people paying to be in first. Note that this includes post-purchase upsells but the point remains that they’re clearly monetizing the cabin.
As air travel has risen, there are more elites (although Delta is thinning out their ranks) and more competition for upgrades.
But the increase in discounted first class fares also means far fewer seats available for upgrade.