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.