Sorry, Op-Ed Writers, Air Travel That You Don’t Understand Just Isn’t an Analogy for Your Pet Political Issue

Last month the New York Times ran an op-ed trying to argue that airline seating contains lessons about income inequality and class struggle. It didn’t do a very good job of it.

It’s one thing when you try to stretch an analogy farther than the facts will take it… It’s another still when you get those facts wrong. In the Times piece it seemed like some were literally made up.

  • The snacks in the piece suggest a JetBlue flight.
  • Yet the author talked of cramped legroom (JetBlue is generous) and a forward cabin (JetBlue doesn’t yet have one).
  • Supposedly first class offered “white linen tablecloths, with actual bone china.” And amenities kits. On New York – Miami.
  • Which is a route JetBlue does not fly.

Jayson Blair, much?

Now it’s the Washington Post‘s Harold Meyerson taking his turn at the exact same topic. Mr. Meyerson must have read the Times last month and failed to realize the piece got almost everything wrong, or at least thought he could do better.

He writes, “A hard landing for the middle class” which I think is a title in poor taste the month following the Asiana crash in San Francisco and a Southwest plane coming down hard at LaGuardia. He wants to suggest that the perks are getting better in the front cabin and that those come at the expense of passengers in coach.

It’s August, and Americans by the millions are cramming themselves into coach-class seats as they embark on their summer vacations. Those able to learn from adversity might ponder this: Airline seating may be the best concrete expression of what’s happened to the economy in recent decades.

Airlines are sparing no expense these days to enlarge, upgrade and increase the price of their first-class and business-class seating. As the space and dollars devoted to the front of the planes increase, something else has to be diminished, and, as multitudes of travelers can attest, it’s the experience of flying coach. The joys of air travel — once common to all who flew — have been redistributed upward and are now reserved for the well-heeled few.

This just isn’t true. Coach legroom hasn’t gotten worse in years. Coach inflight entertainment and access to wireless internet is an improvement. Meals aren’t free, though the free meals used to be mocked. Buy on board meals are pretty good, at least the Marcus Samuelsson sandwiches on American are. In inflation-adjust terms air travel is far less expensive than in its regulated past — the skies are more accessible to people than ever.

International premium cabins are getting better — but far from coming at the expense of the comfort of passengers in coach, a stronger argument can be made that they subsidize coach tickets. And those premium cabins are populated not by the super wealthy but mostly by middle managers, the upper middle class.

None of which has anything to say about income inequality in the United States. But that’s the point. The air travel analogy doesn’t actually offer all that much insight into income inequality or income mobility.

Meyerson talks about the expansion of first class, when there’s far less international first class offered by U.S. carriers than there has been in years. It isn’t offered at all by Delta or US Airways (business is the top cabin). United has it on only a subset of its international routes, whereas two years ago it was offered on all of their routes. American’s plans to retrofit their Boeing 777-200 fleet includes the elimination of three-cabin first class on those planes. American will have first class on only their 777-300ER aircraft.

But let’s talk about business class.

Delta, United and American have all announced plans to upgrade their business-class seats for cross-country and transcontinental flights. Then there’s Emirates, which now sells first-class suites — complete with a shower — that go for a tidy $19,000 on the New York-Dubai route.

Now, a transcontinental flight is a cross country flight. I think he means to say transoceanic or intercontinental.

Still, I’m not following the logic of what Dubai-based Emirates’ offerings have to do with US income inequality, simply because they fly to the U.S.? If that's the case, what can we learn about ourselves from Pakistan International Airlines?

It’s true that the major US carriers are in the process of upgrading their transcontinental flights — but for the most part only between New York JFK and two airports in California. Delta and United have been in the process of upgrading their long haul business class seats for years. First class doesn’t sell to relatively egalitarian US corporations (in contrast to some European and Asian companies). Business class does, and it’s a fiercely competitive market.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, low-cost airlines that re-create the thrill of traveling in steerage are thriving, too. The new business model, apparently, is to shrink the seats, charge extra for everything and offer nothing for free that might be construed as an amenity. That’s certainly the credo of Spirit Airlines, which charges its benumbed passengers a fee for their carry-on bags, $3 for water and $10 for printing out boarding passes and whose seats don’t recline.

Spirit remains a very small part of the air travel market. They’re about a quarter the size of Alaska Airlines. Tight pitch from low cost carriers like Spirit are far more common in Europe than in the United States. (A theory of how Spirit is reflective of the US economy would have to also suggest that Europe is a more extreme example of the same tendencies, since Europe has far more ‘Spirits’ .. in fact Ryanair and EasyJet are pioneers of the model, and in the U.S. Southwest Airlines offers more frills like no change fees, free checked bags, and wireless internet for a fee.

That Spirit exists hardly tells us much about the U.S. — let alone offering an explanation for the ‘disappearing middle class’.

He then writes about JetBlue’s announcement that it would introduce flat seats up front, for the New York JFK – San Francisco/Los Angeles markets only, with the intention of selling those seats to small businesses. And they’re doing so because their customers, who fly them on shorter flights, are booking away on premium cross country routes.

In an unusually concrete way, JetBlue’s change of cabin configuration highlights what the changes to our broader economy have meant. Its ability to provide its customers with more spacious seats was the direct result of not having a first-class section. Airplanes, like stagnating economies, are finite, and if one class takes up more space or commands more resources, the other class gets less.

I’d love to see the JetBlue seatmap which shows reduced legroom in coach. They’re using slimline seats in order to maintain industry-leading legroom. A shift from that would seem to be a prerequisite to claiming JetBlue offering a premium product on two routes compromises its ability to offer generous legroom.

Now it is true that more seats or bigger seats up front would mean fewer seats (rather than necessarily less legroom) in back — if the plane was offering the same number of premium seats. Except that’s not what’s happening. Airlines are offering fewer premium seats than they used to, meaning fewer go out empty or are given to upgraders. The idea is that airlines are investing in the product, trying to sell it, and often increasing the number of coach seats on the plane.

There are real problems in the world. I am not an academic expert on income distribution data. But those who want to engage in such debates ought not cheapen their position by making false claims about the rest of the world around them.

(HT: Dan Butler)

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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. Agree that most of this piece is sensationalist BS, but the underlying point (that the author does a poor job of expressing) that purveyors of luxury goods depend on income inequality more so than they do on aggregate economic growth to drive sales is a valid one. This is why high-end fashion houses, luxury cars and real estate in central London and certain areas of Manhattan are all currently thriving despite a lack of any real economic growth.

    Now, international first class travel is most definitely a luxury good, and one that we have all witnessed get quite a bit more luxurious in the past 5 years. That said, this doesn’t apply to domestic F (where, as you point out, most flyers are middle managers), and (as you also point out) certainly doesn’t mean that improvements to int’l F products are coming at the *expense* of the coach experience. The latter is more populist class-warfare garbage than anything else, which is why this piece is a sad excuse for journalism.

  2. It’s a simple theory: supply and demand. If you have a demand, and can generate revenue (and hopefully profit), then you supply it. Such is the case here with the airlines.

    Much to the dismay of this piece, people have forgot that flying is not a right, no more than home ownership is- Some people can’t afford to fly or buy their own home. They are no less American or equal to their fellow citizen, they simply earn less income than some of their peers. It’s the capitalist society we live in that creates opportunity and for some, wealth.

  3. @Brian – the point I am making is that JetBlue still offers industry leading legroom in coach even with their new configuration. The article you link to makes that point as well.

  4. Rarely do news media let facts get in the way of sensationalized headlines and class warfare. Get eyeballs in any way possible.

  5. The NYT did print a correction a few weeks later, not that anyone cared.

    And JetBlue is cutting pitch by an inch though they are still best in the industry. But they are also cutting it on their 190 seat “all-core” config so it isn’t the big seats causing the issue.

  6. @Wandering Aramean – thing about corrections is nobody sees them or gets the context of what they were referring to. I missed the correction, any chance you have a link as I’d love to see it. Thanks, Gary

  7. @Wandering Aramean — well whaddaya know, there is a correction at the bottom of the article, I didn’t get that far down yesterday when i pulled it back up!

    “Correction: July 14, 2013

    Details in the opening anecdote in the Great Divide opinion essay last Sunday, about the class divisions experienced by airline passengers, were drawn from separate flights taken by the writer, not a single trip. While the writer did fly economy class from New York to Miami recently (on Delta), he was offered a cranberry-almond bar, not a Luna bar — nor blue potato chips and popcorn (which he was offered on a JetBlue flight to Mexico). In addition, the writer observed flight attendants distributing amenity kits to first- and business-class passengers on an American Airlines trans-Atlantic flight, not the flight to Miami.”

  8. @Gary

    I agree, JetBlue will still lead in coach, but they’re going to provide a less comfortable product in the back (thinner seats, less leg room) and a more comfortable product in the front. Agree or not with his theses that the joys of air travel have been redistributed, it serves his argument. Maybe for you, 100 channels of free TV, plus free wifi will make flying on the 321 a joy. And maybe for him having a thinner seat on a trans-con will make it a nightmare.

    @Wandering Aramean a very good point as well.

  9. What most people do:

    1. Read an article in the NYT or WaPo about a subject they know well.
    2. Marvel at the incredible stupidity of the author.
    3. Turn the page.
    4. Read another article on global warming, or economic stimulus, or Republicans, the US South, or Israel, or any of a hundred other topics.
    5. Marvel at the brilliant insights of the author.

    The Gell-Mann Effect.

  10. The underlying issue to articles like these is that people tend to view airlines as public services, rather than profit seeking entities. Maybe it’s because airlines have, from a financial point of view, been run so poorly for so long that travelers got used to those $99 transcons. No one would ever argue that someone who as money to buy jewelry at K-Mart should be entitled to the type of product they would get at Tiffany’s.

    Many travelers have always had cognitive dissonance about flying. They expect great service, large and comfortable seats and low fees while being able to do it at a cheap price. Yet these are the same people who will switch their flight to save a dollar.

    You can’t have both, and I’ve never understood why so many people expect to. I assure you, no one would want to return to the days of regulation.

  11. Another thoroughly mock-able recurring theme in these articles is to harken back to the good old days when everybody got a steak dinner and had plenty of room on airplanes. Of course, to the extent those days actually existed, fare regulation ensured that the “have nots” weren’t travelling by air at all.

  12. Good job pointing out the obvious bias is the NYT and Washington post. Good thing the WSJ doesn’t have any nonsense like this.

  13. @Haldami – if I spot it in an area I’m competent to speak on and that I feel like fits this blog, I will point it out!

  14. @Andyandy – what’s more, the very REASON that steak dinners were the norm is because government regulation of fares was meant to ensure airline profitability and thus fare were set too high — airlines were not permitted to compete on price, but they still wanted to attract those fares, so they overinvested in food (couldn’t lower price, but the higher fares meant they could afford higher costs).

  15. “First class doesn’t sell to relatively egalitarian US corporations (in contrast to some European and Asian companies).”

    Well, Gary, if what you mean is that U.S. corporations are relatively egalitarian when it comes to travel policies, I’ll take your word for it…though I’d still wonder whether you’re taking Wall Street firms and U.S. firms’ corporate jets into account. Beyond that, note that the pay discrepancies between top U.S. corporations’ executives and their employees far exceed those found in most European and Asian counterparts.

    I’d also question the relatively painless world of economy travel you’re painting. Above and beyond examples such as United squeezing even smaller seats into its new 787, the real point is not the economy seats but the deteriorating economy experience, which you, I and so many of your readers strive to avoid.

    Having said that, yeah, I’d agree that overall these are lousy articles with lousy analogies to air travel. And they don’t even work well on their own terms, in that the problem is not income inequality per se but associated harms such as inequality of opportunity (i.e., that there is now more upward mobility in many other relatively affluent societies than there is in what was once the “land of opportunity,” the United States.)

  16. @Steve “Well, Gary, if what you mean is that U.S. corporations are relatively egalitarian when it comes to travel policies, I’ll take your word for it…though I’d still wonder whether you’re taking Wall Street firms and U.S. firms’ corporate jets into account. ”

    The largest operator of corporate jets is Walmart and they aren’t used primarily for top executives — they are used for teams of middle managers to be able to visit, say, 3 stores in a day in the Upper Midwest instead of (with connections) taking 2-3 days per store.

    I don’t consider economy painless, I’m suggesting that the seat hasn’t really gotten worse over time. If anything has “gotten worse” it’s that planes are more full (you don’t get an empty seat next to you nearly as often as you used to).

  17. I have been following Boarding Area and some other travel bloggers for quite a while, but have yet to post. I couldn’t help myself.

    That was a delightful rebuke! Remember, though, that newspaper writers are supposed to cater to the 6th-grade reading level, so the writer couldn’t have expected you to challenge anything that was printed.

    If anything, that is what the article has reminded me of regarding American culture and particularly media/politics…dumb it down, appeal to knee-jerk emotion. Glad to see the ff crowd is flying above that cognitive level.

  18. “if what you mean is that U.S. corporations are relatively egalitarian when it comes to travel policies” This is the image that they are trying hard to project. They don’t want to be seen too often in First Class, but are quite happy to fly corporate jets where they are not visible to the public. Of course, business class exists so that the rules against flying first can be circumvented – not a bad thing in my opinion.

    Of course, all the authors pointing out much cheaper (inflation adjusted) fares are letting far more people fly are spot on.

  19. Your first problem is taking anything written by the New York Times or Washington Post seriously in the first place, especially the opinion section – opinions are like a-holes, everybody has one… Who still reads newspapers anyway?

    These writers are just shills for the current administration trying to drum up class warfare anger in the masses so they will demand that the Government impose new taxes on “luxury travel” that can be used to subsidize these poor lower middle class souls. :-

    I’d would guess that writers have never had a real job that forces them out of their comfy Aeron chairs at Grey Lady HQ (leaving their weed at home of course) for a trip to Tokyo to speak with Japanese colleagues, followed the next afternoon by a hop to Hong Kong to discuss manufacturing changes, then back to NYC by the end of the week so you can make your kids weekend game – at least twice a month.

    Whiny Hacks.

  20. “Coach legroom hasn’t gotten worse in years.”

    It has on Southwest. They’ve added a row of seats over the past year. Legroom on Southwest is now no better than on RyanAir, once considered the worst but now mid-pack. Alaska, AA, and JetBlue are adding a row of seats soon. It’s a trend. The squeeze is on, and it’s hard to put your femurs on a diet!

    Gary, you need to fly coach more often. 😉

    Airlines need to copy UA’s Economy Plus: More fees for femurs.

  21. Gary: You wrote: “Coach legroom hasn’t gotten worse in years.” You were quickly and easily provided proof (just one of many, many examples) that this is a false statement, yet YOU still have not corrected your post. You whine about others who “get those facts wrong”, while getting your facts wrong. Forget the hypocrisy, how about the utter stupidity? Anyone who thinks that business class is not getting better relative to economy is an idiot, and obviously is not concerned with getting the facts right.

    When was the last time you flew long-haul economy (not a rhetorical question, grow a pair and tell us what month and year you last flew long-haul economy)? How many times in the last 5 years? I do, so unlike you, I know what I’m talking about.

  22. @J – I wrote about that news at the time it came out. American is expected to pull out first class seats and/or reduce the number of “Main Cabin Extra’ extra legroom seats in order to get in more standard coach. They are not expected to reduce the standard amount of legroom that coach seats have.

  23. @J – “You wrote: “Coach legroom hasn’t gotten worse in years.” You were quickly and easily provided proof (just one of many, many examples) that this is a false statement, yet YOU still have not corrected your post. ”

    Actually, it is not a false statement. Regarding JetBlue see my post I note that they will reduce legroom but still offer more than industry average. Industry average legroom in economy has not fallen. Spirit does exist now and with less pitch than industry standard, and did not exist prior to deregulation. That does not mean that by any reasonable measure — median, mode, what have you — that legroom has on the whole decreased (even if any given aircraft has less seat pitch).

    “Forget the hypocrisy, how about the utter stupidity? Anyone who thinks that business class is not getting better relative to economy is an idiot, and obviously is not concerned with getting the facts right.”

    I write that international business class has improved. Domestic first class has gotten worse.

    “When was the last time you flew long-haul economy (not a rhetorical question, grow a pair and tell us what month and year you last flew long-haul economy)? How many times in the last 5 years? I do, so unlike you, I know what I’m talking about.”

    I’ve flown international economy many many times, most common destination Australia, but not in a long time. I don’t do it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t read stats, tape measure don’t lie. 😉

  24. I’m surprised they left out the part about the FAs stealing candy from the infants in economy and giving it to the fat cats in First.

    The NYT has been this way for nearly a century. They are the paper that infamously printed Walter Duranty’s false denial of Stalin’s program of forced starvation, and the resultant deaths of Millions of peasants, especially in the Ukraine.

    As Wikipedia notes Duranty “presented Soviet propaganda as legitimate reporting”. And the Times was happy to print it. That they are continuing in the fine tradition of Yellow Journalism should surprise no one.

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