The New York Times ran a piece yesterday on the decline of US domestic first class.
Now, US premium cabin products are much better than their European counterparts where there’s no extra legroom most of the time and usually just a blocked middle seat (MegaDOers refer to this as “Tommy Class” as discussed by the Wall Street Journal‘s Scott McCartney), often with upgraded catering.
But the offerings up front pale in comparison to bygone years. And the Times investigates both the current state of affairs and why things have declined.
Modern first class is summed up in the piece by Joe Brancatelli:
“You go into first class,” said Joe Brancatelli, the editor of JoeSentMe.com, a Web site for business travelers, “because it’s less horrible than coach.”
The piece quotes me on the role of deregulation as the democratizer of the skies:
So while deregulation has “hugely democratized” the skies, said Gary Leff, a founder of milepoint.com, a frequent flier community, it has also meant “that without high fares, the airlines don’t spend on amenities the way that they used to.”
Of course changes in the economy also matter, fewer firms pay for first class than used to. Ten years ago it was still common for major companies to buy their employees first class tickets domestically, such as on flights longer than four hours. Now even movie studios will settle for business class or two-cabin rather than three-cabin first.
Some explanations offered just don’t ring true, however. Unsurprisingly – and while I like Rahsaan personally – an airline spokesman isn’t going to offer the most compelling analytics.
Airline officials acknowledge that some changes in the front of the plane have occurred over the years, but largely because of the changing expectations and demands of their customers. “I think it used to be that the flight was as much a part of the vacation as the beach in Hawaii or touring the Eiffel Tower,” said Rahsaan Johnson, a spokesman for United. “Now people just want to get on and do what they want to do. And they are far more likely to say, I wish I had a place to plug in my laptop than I wish we had flowers in the lav.”
Where to begin?
Just because power ports are more important than flowers, doesn’t mean that flowers don’t improve the experience.
And while the competitive environment may not require better service and amenities in the domestic marketplace, internationally it’s another story entirely. People may not pay for the real premium services on United on their way to tour the Eiffel Tower, but they do on other airlines, airlines which do offer roses in the lav (United’s joint venture partner Lufthansa is known for its roses onboard in First).
United’s three-cabin first class is known as employee class, because passengers aren’t paying for the seats, paying passengers mostly go elsewhere to airlines with better meals, service, and amenities. Even United’s new first class seats while spacious are far from the most spacious and don’t offer substantial privacy. The seats may sell on the longest routes like San Francisco – Sydney at the Hong Kong flights but transatlantic they’re populated mostly by employees. I find that sitting up front on an award that flight attendants will default to an assumption that I’m an employee if they haven’t looked at the manifest.
But that isn’t about customer preferences, that they don’t want the highest end services and amenities. It’s that United doesn’t offer those amenities. Whether they’d succeed in the marketplace if they did is another matter, perhaps US customers wouldn’t pay for the seats the way that customers of other continent flag carriers would.
Not that I’d pay for the seats, so perhaps I have little room to speak, I’m just the fortunate beneficiary of my domestic upgrades and of my international first class award redemptions. Much looking forward to that Cathay Pacific first class cabin again in the coming days… Which will, of course, underscore that international first class is better than ever even as it’s declined domestically.