On the Decline of Domestic First Class

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.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. It really is that simple – if Americans would pay for a better Domestic First class, then the carriers would supply better Domestic First Class.

    It can clearly be seen by looking at Virgin America – they’ve got an incredible Domestic First class that far and away outstrips the competition. Yet they’re hemorrhaging cash. They’re Load Factors and Yields aren’t very pretty.

    If Americans were willing to pay more for a better product, they would receive a better product. Instead, they are addicted to freebie upgrades. “You get what you pay for” has never been more true…

  2. Your last paragraph states part of the problem. Like you I would never pay the asking price for a 1st or business class ticket. I do a good amount of premium cabin travel thanks to elite upgrades and award tickets.

    The problem becomes now what incentive do the airlines have nowadays to improve their first class product when rarely is anyone paying the actual cash for it anymore?

    As long as first/biz is filled with elite upgrades, award ticket holders and non-rev travelers I don’t really expect much improvement. There would have to be a major cultural shift within the airlines industry for things to change. Passengers would have to rethink their expectations too.

  3. This is not an untried proposition. The carriers all offered true first class in the past but the logic of the market has demonstrated that there’s no significant market at a price that makes it worthwhile.

    It’s unlikely that economic conditions are going to change in such a way as to bring back first class. Instead, premium economy — offered at a smaller but more realistic premium cost — is going to become the new first class.

  4. Lufthansa used to have a yellow flower (black-eyed Susan?) in the lav of business class. I always thought it was a very simple, nice touch which made the lav seem a little nicer (possibly subconciously getting people to wipe the washbasin, though I suspect that is simply German culture at work since they tend to be very rules-oriented/policing themselves). But I’ve taken several flights on LH over the past year and the biz flowers have disappeared (roses are still in First).

    I remember the very first time that I flew domestic First about 14 years ago. It was a UA flight from SFO to ORD and I had been bumped from coach. They had white tablecloths, silver, an actual menu with 2 entree choices, and huge warm chocolate chip cookies that they gave us about 30 minutes before landing. Possibly some decent choices in alcohol too. The service felt very special and I came away with a very favorable impression.

    Now, like Joe says, I’m just happy when my upgrade clears and I’m not sitting in coach. Domestic first is not that special except for the seat. That said, I do prefer it over Europe’s ‘Tommy class’. On the other side of the pond, the catering has changed in euro domestic biz, at least on LH and AF. Instead of a tray, they now give you a little box full of (hopefully) high-quality savor/sweet bites. A nice snack but not really a meal like they had previously.

  5. They certainly could improve first class food. On AA domestic first, I often ask for Boston Market $7 turkey sandwich because the $3.75 AA per passenger spends on its first class food is indelible.

  6. Most domestic based US airlines are not competitive with the international Business and First offerings of foreign based airlines. If one compares DL, UA, or AA to SQ, LH, CX, etc., their in flight amenities and ground services such as their lounges are at a much higher quality level. What the US carriers like UA & AA offer their frequent flyers is a good vlaue for their elite flyers by offering them upgrades domestically, and the ability to upgrade international flights with miles or certificates.

    I do think that UA, AA, and DL would be smart to try and get people to buy their C or F international prodcut by offering a substantial discount off the fares. A UA ORD-SYD F fare costs $27,000. This is way out of proportion. Now offer the F fare for $3500 and offer a C class ticket for $2500, and you would actually sell these seats.

  7. Why must people always moan on and on about foreign carriers? The comparisons are not fair. Many of these carriers are based in countries as big as 1 US state. Some of them so small their domestic routes are pretty useless when rail is a better option. Of course they will pour more money into their long haul international service. The comparison to US carrier domestic service is silly.

  8. I can’t speak for others but I called UA First “employee class” because many F seats were often filled with UA employees rather than customers. That’s another subject but that situation was hardly due to lack of interest on the part of valued customers, as the quote suggests.

  9. In all honesty, USA domestic first class has been “status quo” for at least 15 years now. At least that’s my experience on CO, and now UA. If anything, it’s improved a little bit lately with better in-flight entertainment (like the Direct TV you get for free in FC). Also, CO/UA seems to have more imaginative and tasty meals than in years past.

    I’ve always thought domestic FC was more about “status” (feeling special) than “reality.” There’s rarely been food on short flights and the food you get even on the longest domestic flights (except perhaps the transcons) is stuff you’d never find acceptable in a decent restaurant.

    Unless a market develops for BUYING domestic FC seats (as opposed to upgrades), I doubt we’ll see significant product improvements.

  10. I’d gladly pay for the right price. Unfortunately the only domestic airline that offers that is AirTran and their business class is heading Southwest.

  11. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy domestic first class much better than coach, and I realize that it’s pretty much just an upgrade class for the most part, but I swear what most food is served in domestic first is akin to what was served as a complimentary meal in domestic coach 15-20 years ago.

  12. Call me an AA lover, I have to disagree, but on my last midcon I had exactly what Erik was stating was a thing of the past:

    “I remember the very first time that I flew domestic First about 14 years ago. It was a UA flight from SFO to ORD and I had been bumped from coach. They had white tablecloths, silver, an actual menu with 2 entree choices, and huge warm chocolate chip cookies that they gave us about 30 minutes before landing. Possibly some decent choices in alcohol too. The service felt very special and I came away with a very favorable impression.”

  13. The “foriegn” airlines generally do a far superior FC product, because they charge for it. Just compare AA to BA LAX LHR. BA is two thousand dollars more RT. Then there is the FFP question. No comparison in the free flight possibilities from flying BA, compared to the same mileage flown AA. Without even mentioning the non-flight mileage opportunites. I’m gong FC on AA to LHR this summer for the third year in a row without any revenue travel at all for years. Thank you BankDirect, Citibank, SPG, Chase, etc. I could never have qualified for that with BA. Don’t even get me started on fuel surcharges….

    Add in the mileage programs, upgrades, etc to the ticket price, and the “far better” foreign airlines FC is far, far more expensive. You get what you pay for, and I”d have to be far wealthier to find the tradeoff worthwhile. Then again, I’ll jump at the chance to use my AA miles to fly Cathay Pacific FC :>}

  14. I think there are a couple (or more) of issues in play here.

    You’re correct in that, in the past, US employers were more forthcoming in sending their employees first class. I recall my father commenting in 1970’s that at GM, ALL white collar employees, such as himself, flew first class on all flights, by company policy.

    A couple of things have happened in the last 30 plus years. Yes, deregulation is one of them, but it’s not the most important. The real issue is the bifurcation of the labor market. 30 years ago, the CEO flew first class and wanted his people with him. His people wanted their people, etc, so all managers flew first class.

    As corporate jets, charters and fractional ownership became more common, the CEO took a G-IV or Challenger. His people, left behind back on commercial carriers, were pressed to save money. Since no one cared how the junior executive got to the meeting, he or she flew coach. Twist the budget screws a little tighter and the mid-level folks flew coach. Ratchet it up and everyone short of the C-level people on the private jets is in coach.

    It doesn’t really effect the lives of the road warriors and VPs. The road warriors upgrade thanks to status and so do the VPs, thanks to the status grants and upgrade certs the corporate travel team gets. Of course, the airline isn’t seeing extra revenue from this, so service in the front cabin gets slashed.

    Finally, we get to today, where no one really recalls that business travelers used to regularly buy 1st class tickets and we’re all used to being in the back of the bus.

  15. I am not sure it is fair that people refer to UA First class as “employee class” my understanding is they would get the seat only if it would otherwise be empty. If we have status we get the seat before a employee or if we purchase a seat up front we get the seat before a employee. If we want it we need to pay for it.

  16. I guess I mis-read this post, mistaking some of the sarcastic comments by bloggers as being from the NYT article. Since they so closely resemble much of what I’ve read in the times, I didn’t notice my mistake until later. Upon reading the actual times piece, I still find the article more anecdotal than informative…

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