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)