Some People Don’t Want Their Air Travel to Be Better — They Just Want Yours to Be Worse

Most rants about premium cabins conjure up a mythical past when air travel was better and suggest that economy has gotten worse while premium cabin travel has gotten better.

As I related when critiquing a poorly done New York Times piece in this genre, the sentiment is captured by Renee Zellweger’s character in Jerry Maguire who looks forward from the coach cabin and up to where Tom Cruise is sitting and tells her son,

First class, that’s what’s wrong. It used to be a better meal, now it’s a better life.

Of course, food used to be better in domestic first class than it is today. And that’s so because airfares were regulated, airlines could not compete on price. Price regulation was meant to keep airlines profitable, to prevent them from competing away their profits. But since passengers meant marginal revenue far above cost, they still needed to compete for those fares. They couldn’t do it by lowering price, so they piled on the amenities. They jacked up their costs with things like extravagant meals to attract customers.

Today airfare is far more affordable and democratic than it used to be, air travel is no longer the exclusive province of the rich and of business travelers.

And it isn’t the rich populating those cabins, it’s business travelers and — especially domestically — frequent travelers with complimentary upgrades. Far from signaling the end of the middle class, it’s often the middle class sitting up front.

But Paul Brady on Twitter forwards me an article of a different sort — another rant about the differences between coach and premium cabins, but this time instead of wishing for a world where everyone got better service (or income inequality was eliminated by making everyone rich), like a dream of North Korean paradise this rant resents the very notion of better amenities up front and wishes we would all be equal in back.

The author writes about first and business class in contrast to economy, and discusses Virgin Atlantic as offering the epitome of an exclusive first class experience (their “Upper Class” is very much a business class product).

She thinks the mere existence of first class is degrading.

There is something inherently degrading about the existence of first class air travel, whether you are sitting in it or having to walk through the rows of plush well-appointed seats to the more-cramped, less-reclining ones behind. Once in a while, in passing through to your own humble seat you might catch the eye of one of the Upper Class. More often, they avoid looking at you. Or when you yourself are occupying a First or Business seat through luck or extravagance, that is uncomfortable in a different way; maybe you don’t look up from your mimosa, either.

Not only is Upper Class not a first class product, coach passengers do not generally board through the front of the aircraft and walk through the business class cabin to get back to their seats. That simply isn’t how boarding a Virgin long haul aircraft works.

She sees the benefits of premium cabins as wholly unnecessary luxury, meant only to self-deceive about status and importance.

Unless you are fairly wide and/or fairly tall, those few inches of extra room won’t make much difference, you’re going to be stuck there and uncomfortable no matter what; why pay hundreds or thousands of dollars more simply to emerge five minutes earlier from an airplane that is, with any luck, landing at the same time for every passenger? Not that I’m opposed to luxury, in its place. But when what’s on offer appears largely to be Superiority For Hire, it seems ridiculous, contemptible even, like the privilege queues on offer these days at theme parks. Contrary to what the marketing juggernaut would like us to believe, you can buy superior things, but you can’t buy superiority for yourself, not with any amount of dough, and the more you spend the less you will succeed.

While I don’t doubt that there are people who might feel good about themselves as a result of being in a separate cabin from other passengers, when businesses pay for the seats it isn’t generally for status and prestige but so that employees can sleep on an overnight flight and be rested enough to get off the plane and go to work productively. If a business loses a day’s productivity while an employee rests after a flight that may be more costly than the price of that seat — at least that’s the bet. Whether an investment banker or a lawyer working on a merger or financial issue worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, down time interrupting a deal is a huge cost.

And it’s much easier to work and be productive on a long flight (especially with the advent of inflight internet!) with more space. Domestically it’s just a few inches, although those inches are the difference between being able to open your laptop all the way or not. Internationally the characterization of the difference in cabins as a few inches is simply misinformed.

For me, and I am incredibly fortunate to fly in premium cabins either as a result of logging more than 100,000 butt in seat miles domestically each year or by redeeming miles for international travel, I’m not only more productive on trips but because the travel isn’t as uncomfortable I travel more, I see and experience the world more. I would not take as many long haul international trips if they were in coach. I don’t feel entitled and superior. I am grateful, fortunate, and humbled by what loyalty programs allow for me even.

Ironically, the author thinks frequent flyer programs separate the haves from the have nots..!

First class has always been absurdly expensive, but before the advent of frequent-flier programs, it was far more common for the average person to be bumped up, and therefore it seemed less immediately “exclusive.” If the plane was overbooked, for example, you might easily score a first class seat, particularly if traveling alone. Certain airlines were more lenient about this, and there were also a lot of wheezes for standby tickets at cut prices and whatnot. If the ride was very bumpy the “stewardesses” as they were then known would bust out the booze and give everyone free drinks. Air travel was just goofier, and messier, and seemed quite a bit less Us and Them.

There was a three year period between airline deregulation and the introduction of frequent flyer programs. Prior to deregulation, the skies were very much the province of the rich and of business(mostly-)men.

So like the period between the October and February revolutions, if she wants to posit a time between deregulation and the advent of frequent flyer programs where the average person lived a life of luxury it would be a narrow window indeed. (“If only Snowball had won…”)

Except that frequent flyer programs very much democratize those cabins. It’s schlubs like me sitting up there now. It’s middle managers and sales people flying 100,000 years getting the upgrades.

“Operational” upgrades where coach is oversold and premium cabins are not, and someone has to sit up front to get everyone onto the plane, is often done by status — rather than a nice smile, a nice business suit, or randomness. But that it is less a lottery or flirting system and more structure to deliver those seats to an airline’s regular customers does not in any way suggest that the ‘average person’ is up front less than before.

And indeed, as I say, the average person wasn’t even in the airport much in the supposed good ‘ol days.

But what’s her preferred model? It’s the old People Express which she doesn’t seem to understand:

From time to time there have been attempts made to provide reasonably more egalitarian, comfortable, cost-effective air travel—some of them very successful. I am still mourning People Express, a most efficient and pleasant means of getting from Los Angeles to Newark in the 1980s that was run roughly on the Freddie Laker model. You paid for a ticket in cash, on the plane; they’d come around with a little cart and collect your dough after takeoff. There was no first class, and they didn’t serve food. The cheapest flight on that route was a red-eye jammed with mostly young people and it was cool as anything. This, too, was capitalism, just practiced in a very different way. People Express died because they diversified into separate classes. It started with their flights to London. They jettisoned their pricing model—which was very reminiscent of Jet Blue’s—to chase greater fares, then had to sell, merge or face bankruptcy.

First of all, People Express did serve food. You had to buy it, but as a kid I used to love buying a soda and their ‘snak-pak’ snack basket.

People Express didn’t just have buy on board, they were the first airline to charge for checked bags too. They represented much of what now frustrates consumers most about airlines!

And their “pay on board” model simply isn’t possible today when you need a ticket to even go to the gate, let alone to get on the plane. That’s not a failure of business model, it’s an artifact of regulation.

People Express didn’t die because it starting putting in a premium cabin. People Express died because it was acquired by Frank Lorenzo’s behemoth of an airline holding company which also picked up Eastern and Continental. It couldn’t survive on its own, lacking the computing power to compete against major airlines who could discount some but not all of the seats on their flights. And they tried to expand too quickly and with poor strategy. They piled on debt in their own acquisitions of Frontier, Britt Airways and Provincetown-Boston Airlines. They went after higher fare business travelers when they were already sinking.

Nonetheless, the author’s affinity for “everyone is equal in back” as opposed to even “everyone is equal up front” I think misses something about the human condition. Stop to remember for a moment which way traffic flowed over the Berlin Wall. Misery may love company, but it loves a chance to escape misery even more. The author, an attorney who used to work for one of the founding executives of Virgin Atlantic, has no doubt already had these advantages. I wish she didn’t want to take them away from everyone else.

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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. You tell ’em, Gary. Your responses are well thought out and built on logic flows.

    Statists are going to state. Those brought up with the narrative of the annointed elite want to act as a 3rd party to intervene in the lives of private individuals with solutions forced upon them without consent.

    Keep up the good fight.

    This moral battle between reminds of this meme which is starting to trend:

  2. Reminds me of another limousine liberal who chastised those who own corporate jets, but shuttles himself around to play golf in a 747.

  3. You need to change the image for your blog. The picture should be of the right wing of a plane, not the left. 🙂

  4. Not enough excitement in the world of miles and points? Is this the equivalent of a slow summer news day for the 24/7 news channels that then has to resort to amusing political commentary about commentary to keep or generate an audience? 😀

  5. John,

    The plane is banking to the right. In another context that would be leaning starboard, but I think this is the result of being plain bored. 😀

  6. I do think airlines need to be careful not to be too elitist. Selling upgrades for $39 to regular ol’ folks rather than giving them all to elites all the time actually makes good business sense.

  7. There are circumstances where you may board through upper class on Virgin, especially if on the older A343s.

    It’s quite common to deplane through upper, however, before they get the 2nd air bridge sorted.

  8. @Woggly deplaning wasn’t what the author was talking about, rather they were talking about how things usually work.

    @others – if it’s right wing to suggest that everyone ought to have the opportunity to get better experiences, it would be left wing to suggest that ‘average folks’ ought not be able to. I’m not willing to buy that characterization.

  9. This is a solid post. Now more than any time in history, the average person has the opportunity to sit up front. Now more than any time in history, the premium cabins are truly premium. Yeah, you don’t just walk on to the plane and claim your upgrade anymore. Now you have to work at it a little, but with airlines and credit card issuers begging you to take their miles, I personally can’t imagine flying internationally and NOT being in a premium cabin. We can even go one step further and say you don’t actually need money to do it, either, thanks to the myriad opportunities to manufacture spending.

    I’m in my 30’s, but I don’t think I’d like the good old days. In the good old days, I probably wouldn’t ever be in the front cabin.

  10. This author may have a political bent but I think she is more in the mold of someone who just isnt very informed about air travel. She is just another flyer pining for the “good old days.” Of course, when one actually looks at the good old days they werent so good unless you were a wealthy white businessman.

  11. @Dan Right. Even if things were better or more equal on board in the “good old days” the operative term is ON BOARD. Who got to go on board in the good old days? It is a stretch to say that a middle class family of 4 could afford it.

  12. Back in 1960 my newly-married mom flew from London to Boston (r/t) on British Airways, then known as BOAC. Her coach ticket cost my father , a poor young enlisted man in the US Air Force, EIGHT HUNDRED DOLLARS, which, adjusted for today’s inflation, would be $6,247.65 in 2013.

    I’ll settle for a cramped coach seat and an unpleasant eight-hour flight at an affordable price, thank you.

  13. Gary, was a flippant remark done in jest. But it’s obvious to any regular reader of your blog that you favor small govt (TSA posts, criticism of federal worker travel priority, the FAA sequester series) and that you love capitalism (2 posts in 1week attacking criticism of segregated cabins).Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with your political outlook, but it does influence your writing.

  14. @DBest – Criticism of warrantless searches are a civil rights position. The FAA sequester discussion was budget analysis that proved to be correct. I have no problem with negotiated rates for federal workers in fact I think it is wise use of resources, I simply suggest that in the DC amrket is means that upgrade policies at United and Delta make in inadvisable for a non-federal worker to fly them since they won’t get nearly as many upgrades (as YCA fare silvers trump 1Ks on mid-priced fares).

    I certainly have a perspective that informs whatever topic I’m writing on, but I wouldn’t be so quick to pigeon-hole it (especially if that makes it easier for you to simply dismiss)…

  15. The author, an attorney who used to work for one of the founding executives of Virgin Atlantic,….
    The link leads to
    Maria Bustillos is a journalist and critic in Los Angeles.

    Seems to be a journalist not a lawyer ….

    I think “The author, once worked for an attorney who was one of the founding executives of Virgin Atlantic,….”

    Slightly different view about the authors origin…
    but I agree with you Gary, it is all about taking it away from those who get it.

  16. “if it’s right wing to suggest that everyone ought to have the opportunity to get better experiences, it would be left wing to suggest that ‘average folks’ ought not be able to. I’m not willing to buy that characterization”

    Well, I am willing to make it. A Russian American immigrant told me this joke, as an explanation of why he moved to the US:
    A poor couple in Germany, living in a run down hovel, looked longingly at their neighbor’s mansion, and said: “If it takes us our whole lives, and we have to work our fingers to the bone, one day we will be as rich as you”.

    A poor couple in Russia, living in a run down hovel, looked disapprovingly at their neighbor’s mansion, and said: “If it takes us our whole lives, and we have to work our fingers to the bone, one day you will be as poor as us”.

    This rich=evil attitude is the spirit of the French and Soviet revolutions, who sent their “elites” to the guillotine and the gulags. And especially of the Khmer Rouge, who reduced the entire population of Cambodia to the level of medieval serfs. Resulting in the deaths of over 30% of the entire population. But at least no one was “rich” anymore. 🙁

    But it is also the spirit of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and found in recent political speeches:

    Hillary Clinton; “We are going to have to take some things away from you, for your own good”.
    President Obama: “At some point, you’ve made enough money”
    Everyone in the Climate Change religion: ‘You poor people in Africa and Asia can never have a Western lifestyle, because that would be bad for the planet'{sic}

    And no, conservative does not mean Republican. JFK, a Democrat who was considered Liberal in his day, but would be called conservative today, pointed out that “A rising tide raises all boats”. Using this logic, he reduced taxes for the wealthy, which jumpstarted the economy, and yes benefitted ordinary workers as much as it did the wealthy.

    Whereas the current “the rich have to pay their {continually increasing} fair share” ideology has created the worst unemployment, and underemployment, since the Great Depression. Hurting the young, and minorities, and especially young minorities, the worst.

    Frankly, I think calling conservative statements “Republican” or “Right Wing”, or invoking “Faux news” or “Limbaugh”, should be subject to Godwin’s Law.

  17. I think Gary summarizes it quite nicely here: “Stop to remember for a moment which way traffic flowed over the Berlin Wall. Misery may love company, but it loves a chance to escape misery even more.”.

    The underlying theme of the writer is jealousy – somebody has something (whether deserved, earned, or not) and the writer does not. If I can’t have it, neither can you. No one took anything from the writer, they just did not get what someone else has. Of course, the writer gets to ride on an airplane and does not have to walk, so they have something someone else does not…..

  18. The authors of these communistic manifestos are so delusional and out of touch with reality. Just 40 years ago (pre-1977 deregulation) air travel was prohibitively expensive for middle class families like mine. I didn’t take my first plane trip until I was 10 (a $32 intra-California flight on PSA) or my first transcon/international trip until I was 21 (and then only for a semester abroad). Nobody was upgraded to F because AA didn’t introduce AAdvantage until 1982. Yes the seats and food were a -little- nicer but your flight cost was far more expensive in real $$ than it is today. Thanks to deregulation air travel is mass transportation now and accessible to the vast majority of Americans.

    These authors also conveniently ignore introduction of E+ seating – now standard on all legacy USA carriers – which provides far more legroom than the old coach section. And finally as you note there are alternatives for those who prefer egalitarian seating – WN and B6 come to mind, and I know there are others including many in Europe.

    Yes, it sucks that there is a race to the bottom in airline seating and service, but this is an industry that has never been profitable, so change is needed. And competition will eventually bring better options, just as it has for telephone communications, etc.

  19. Robert — both the French and Russian revolutions were maelstroms of chaos in which no one was safe from the guillotine/gulag/show trials, rich or poor.

    Gary — I’m strongly left of center, and I LOVE when you do these posts. America is about equality of access and equality of opportunity. I, as a flamin’ liberal public schoolteacher, get to sit in first class sometimes even as a lowly Delta elite. This is far, far more fair than the old system, in which I would be taking buses.

  20. “both the French and Russian revolutions were maelstroms of chaos in which no one was safe from the guillotine/gulag/show trials, rich or poor”

    maelstroms of chaos ?

    Sorry, I just don’t care for this Orwellian tendency to mis-label things to obscure the actual facts. The Fort Hood terrorist attack is being called “workplace violence”, the Embassy evacuations are being called “reductions in staffing”, and the bombings in Libya were nor called warfare, but “kinetic actions”.

    Leftist revolutions, based on an ideology of class warfare, do not cease to be that when the violence spirals out of control. The rallying call of the French Revolution was not ‘viva chaos and anarchy’, it was “equality and fraternity”.

    The fact that all leftist revolutions end up violently purging many of the original leaders does not change the fact that the underlying ideology is the elimination of privilege. Nor that they all ultimately descend into random mass murder, as the new revolutionary elites seek to maintain control thru oppression and outright terror.

  21. I still don’t see why people traveling in C or F feel superior. You just pay more, whether it may be revenue or miles (unlimited domestic upgrades are not available for people living in Europe and flying with european carriers)… to get a different product. What’s the big deal ?

  22. Well, that’s the point. People traveling in C or F {don’t} feel superior. They just feel more comfortable. An advantage which some are willing or able to pay more for, and others are not. It’s the ‘everyone must be equal in result, rather in opportunity’, folks who try to make it a big deal.

  23. “maelstroms of chaos ?

    Sorry, I just don’t care for this Orwellian tendency to mis-label things to obscure the actual facts.”

    Robert – I also find the current trend to carefully rewrite history to be destructive. However, there is no mislabeling going on there. The French and Russian revolutions can be correctly described as “maelstroms of chaos.” Your critique, that both began in an “ideology of class warfare,” is true, but does not negate the fact that both eventually turned into maelstroms of chaos.

    In general, I’m not fond of either “side” turning a critique of the implications of first class air travel into a political discussion, but let’s at least keep our terminology straight.

    IMHO, first class is actually less “special” compared to coach than in the olden days. The reason we think of coach as being so bad isn’t because first class is so good, but because we’ve gotten fatter, making the coach cabin seem smaller.

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