The Class Struggle in the Skies is More Illusion than Reality

The New York Times carried a piece this weekend called Class Struggle in the Sky where the author argued that in airworld, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

The film Jerry Maguire did a much better job framing the issue, when Renee Zellweger’s character 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.

There’s no doubt that the man walking past me yesterday in the back, muttering to his family how great it would be if he had one of the bigger seats up front, shared this view. And that he was asked to use the lavatory “in his ticketed cabin” felt to him an insult (though I don’t remember the last time someone was sent back to coach and refused the first class lav).

But the portrayal of a ‘class struggle in the skies’ — at least as it’s typically imagined — is dead wrong.

  • Coach travel isn’t getting materially worse.
  • Coach travel is certainly getting less expensive (in inflation-adjusted prices, inclusive of fees).
  • Domestic premium cabin travel is actually getting worse.
  • Only international premium services are improving.

Coach now features internet, and in some cases pimped out inflight entertainment (on many Delta planes, and the future is bright with servers to stream video on demand). Coach pitch hasn’t decreased.

The meals up front on domestic flights ain’t what they used to be. My first upgrade on United was a cross country flight in which I got a shrimp appetizer and steak for lunch, served in courses. I used to get crab cakes flying Chicago – Baltimore on United. When the ‘gourmet cheeseburger’ was introduced in 2001 it was shocking that first class could offer a burger. Fifteen years later I long for the burger to be gourmet…

Meanwhile, inflation-adjusted airfares are about 15% lower than they were in 1995.

Even including fees, airfares are down about 37% since 1979 in inflation-adjusted terms.

That means more people can fly than ever before. That’s democratizing the skies. And it doesn’t even count the advent of free frequent flyer award tickets, of which there are millions each year.

I’m not going to delve into income inequality debates, I don’t claim expertise in interpreting the data. But I can certainly speak to the claims made in the New York Times about air travel, when the inflight experience is used to try to score political points in those inequality debates.

The choice of “snacks” on my New York to Miami flight includes blue potato chips, a Luna bar, a packet of trail mix and — a selection I haven’t been offered before — popcorn. But it makes sense: the cabin already feels like a movie theater at the end of a showing, even though we still have an hour to go. The floor is strewn with candy-bar wrappers and broken headsets, crumpled napkins and cracked plastic glasses. There’s so little legroom that I have to push my knees against the seat in front of me as if I’m doing crunches. Welcome to economy.

Elsewhere in the plane — “on the other side of the curtain,” as the first-class and business cabins are referred to — dinners are being served on white linen tablecloths, with actual bone china. Everyone’s got their “amenities kit” — one of those little nylon bags containing slippers, an eyeshade and a toothbrush. And legroom? Tons. While our seat width contracts — on some airlines by nearly eight inches in recent years — the space up front continues to expand: Emirates Airlines now offers, as part of its “first-class private suite,” a private room with minibar, wide-screen TV and “lie-flat bed.”

Judging from the snacks in coach it’s probably a JetBlue flight, providing the author with more legroom than other airlines and more legroom than coach offered in the ‘good old days’. And of course this fantasy flight doesn’t even exist because JetBlue doesn’t have a first class.

But let’s say it’s not JetBlue, someone else is providing these snacks. Who exactly is providing amenity kits on a New York – Miami flight?

The comparison here is to Emirates which of course has no domestic US traffic rights. A three hour flight in Europe is no more luxurious than in the US. And while the author rails against class distinctions it’s worth remembering that even North Korea’s Air Koryo has a business class cabin.

AH, the old days … But it’s true: there was a time when air travel — for everyone, regardless of class station — was synonymous with luxury. Bruce Handy captured the way things were in a nostalgic Vanity Fair essay about stewardesses (“stews”): “Their ‘look’ was as polished as the marble in a corporate lobby,” writes Mr. Handy. They wore lipstick and false eyelashes, white gloves and crisply folded hats. And they were young: the mandatory retirement age was 32.

The author longs for a non-union past when flight attendants were hot.

And of course he longs for a past when meals were better. Airfares were fixed by the government, competition on price was outlawed. So in order to compete for lucrative passenger business, airlines had to offer better and better meals. Of course they were only offering those to businessmen and the wealthy who could afford to fly…

You could get on a plane and be shown your seat in coach without having to mill around at the gate waiting for your “group” to be called. You weren’t a “member” of Premier, Business, Gold Circle, Executive Platinum or some other designation that indicated how often you flew and how much you put on your credit card.

… Except that boarding was never a free for all.

And the frequent flyer programs and credit card rewards programs are themselves a great democratizer.

It isn’t the wealthy that are cherished by the airlines, it’s the middle class middle manager logging a hundred thousand miles butt in seat each year.

And the miles earned by the middle class, including through their credit cards (more miles are earned via credit cards than flying), allow access to premium cabin frequent flyer awards — they open up a domain that was once the exclusive cabin of the privileged. Now anyone with a Visa, a MasterCard, and American Express who saves their miles can fly up there.

So the author gets it exactly backwards. Previously only money bought privilege, now many more of us can access it in the sky.

It’s this total misunderstanding of airlines and their products that drives the article — as Maslow said, ‘when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.’ When you want to score points about inequality, you see inequality growing everywhere.

In May, in an effort to compete with Netjets and private jets, American unveiled a new premier service, an elite category for those who can afford to pay approximately $18,000 for a round-trip ticket to London.

Curious about what they could possibly offer that wasn’t available in regular first, I arranged to go out to Kennedy Airport for a tour.

While international first class is indeed a ‘value’ for those who would otherwise fly private, American’s Flagship check-in isn’t ‘an effort to compete with Netjets’ it is an effort to compete with Delta and with United.

There’s a Flagship Lounge — complete with its own chef, marble bathrooms with showers and Eames chairs for napping.

The key design element of the Flagship lounge bathrooms at JFK is that they are reasonably clean. If you’ve ever been there around 5pm you know it can be tough to find a seat. And this ‘chef’ of whom the author speaks brings out cold cuts and cold salads for lunch.

Look, there are real problems in the world. And those problems deserve serious arguments. Don’t demean those arguments by getting cute with air travel, if the anology doesn’t work just leave it alone.

First class is always and everywhere better than coach. But that doesn’t mean coach is getting worse, or domestic first getting better, and it isn’t necessarily the rich who are accessing first class either — more and more the middle class have access to the skies, and even to the front of the curtain separating the cabins.

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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. Thanks for a corrective to the whiny and uninformed stuff we get so often about the air travel experience. You might add safety if you wish. The Asiana tragedy aside, air travel is also far safer than it ever was before. The Boeing 777 has had 5 million takeoffs and landings and this is the first fatality. Back in the “good old days”, crashes were a far more frequent occurrence.

  2. Great analysis. While some things have certainly changed, I always come away with the feeling that I am getting what I am paying for.

    Personally, from my perspective, that of a non-frequent, non-statused traveler, I feel that domestic first is more accessible today than it was in years past. Paid upgrades, online or at the kiosk, seem increasingly plentiful and reasonable, and I find myself taking them up on the offer quite regularly.

    If anyone should feel marginalized, it’s the true frequent flier, getting increasingly squeezed between the sheer revenue volume of high-load-factor coach cabins and the monetization of first through sales of upgrades, etc. to folks like me.

  3. In most of my flights this year, coach passengers have been denied access to the First Class lavatory. In the FA announcement, they specifically state “the FAA requires you to use the lavatory in your ticketed cabin for security reasons”…

  4. @Jamison – I do get the announcement but haven’t in a single flight this year seen a passenger turned away

  5. I have occasionally seen coach pax turned away from the first class lavatory. There’s usually some rule of reason on access, though; like nobody will bother you if a cart is blocking the aisle, it’s a kid, etc.

    The decline of the domestic first class product should have been the real NYTimes story, though. As a lifetime CO platinum and now lifetime UA 1K, I’ve seen the meals (and, to a lesser extent, the service) materially decline in recent years. I was too young for the “golden days” of first class travel, but I can remember Eastern Airlines hand carving chateaubriand at my seat on transcons around 1990. That type of service faded, but you could still get a very decent transcon first class meal a decade ago. Even 3 hour flights had good meals. Now, the food is scarce, lower quality and almost always dumped on your tray in one serving. Given how hard it is to get an upgrade (hard to imagine folks actually PAYING for this service, especially with Economy Plus legroom in the back)I find it pretty remarkable that anyone would try hard to reach the status necessary for a slim chance at a mediocre first class experience.

    Oh, well. There are other aspects of the frequent flying experience which have improved in the past decade (notably partners, credit card offers, in-flight entertainment, long distance planes), so you take the good with the bad.

  6. I always find the “air travel is cheaper that 20 years ago) statistics hard to believe. Taking a brief look at the linked studies, it appears to me that the figures are based on average ticket price across all classes and types of tickets.

    If so, while it would be true to state that average per-mile ticket costs have gone down, it’s still misleading for the average leisure traveler if it turns out that the averages are skewed by a change in the distribution of fares. And I think that’s probably the case since airfare distrubution 20 years ago was considerably more bi-modal (with cheap leisure fares and expensive business / first class / last minute fares) than it is in today’s considerably closer-to-perfect airfare marketplace.

    In short, while fliers at the high-end of ticket fares have probably seen a substantial decrease, people at the low-end have probably seen an increase. On average, fares may have gone down, but not in the price-sensitive leisure travel end of the market.

  7. I never understand these complaints. If you want more you can pay for more. How is this any different from other areas of life? You can pay extra for a better meal, buy a luxury car instead of an economy car, a new house in a nice area versus a fixer-upper, pay extra for expedited services like overnight mail or fast turnaround of your tax refund or passport, and so on…

  8. @Steve – hah – well I don’t have simply “View from” trademarked… Not a ton of Club Carlson properties with club lounges, though, so seems to me an odd name!

  9. This may sounds snobby which is not the intention but I suspect that generally speaking, having flown first class could be a “class marker” of sorts in the US, in the same way that your BMI, whether you smoke, whether you have tattoos or the state of your teeth are.

  10. Great response to the NYT article from someone who simply doesn’t get it. The NYT article was a knee-jerk response to what one may see aboard a flight (domestic or international.) The reality is, if you can find a way (butt-in-seat miles or credit card churning), anyone can work their way to a First Class seat. Even on Emirates.

  11. Good riposte. I was annoyed at the NYT article as well: fares have dramatically dropped in real terms, no matter which way you look at it:

    “According to Clifford Winston and Steven Morrison of the Brookings Institution, are 22 percent lower than they would have been had regulation continued.”

    “Since passenger deregulation in 1978, airline prices have fallen 44.9 percent in real terms according to the Air Transport Association.”

    “Robert Crandall and Jerry Ellig (1997) estimated that when figures are adjusted for changes in quality and amenities, passengers save $19.4 billion dollars per year from airline deregulation. These savings have been passed on to 80 percent of passengers accounting for 85 percent of passenger miles. The real benefits of airline deregulation are being felt today as never before, with LCCs increasingly gaining market share.”

    So, do ya want lots of uncomfortable travel for cheap, or a smaller quantity of nicer travel for more bucks? It seems like a straightforward trade-off, not a matter of class warfare.

    And further, I have little patience for travelers who automatically click on the “cheapest fare” button (whichever service they are using, Expedia, Kayak, you name it) and then are shocked that someone who paid more gets better service. You get what you pay for.

    I do agree with iahphx that there seems to be a compression of first class with coach service, however. And I am not just whining that I didn’t get my first choice of 5 wines or something like that: maybe it is my heavy use of United, but in my mind now First Class means a) a bigger seat; b) a free movie; and c) an actual meal. However, too often that seat seems worn and tired and the seatback pocket full of crumbs, the movie freebie is only worth $5 anyway, and the meal is barely up to Applebee’s in terms of portions, taste, and cutlery levels. Has anyone ever looked, not just at absolute prices over time (cost of a coach ticket, cost of a first class ticket) and evaluated whether one now gets less “bang for the buck” when paying up for first? Beats me. And then again, maybe as fewer first class travelers are paying for it (versus snagging upgrades), maybe we’re part of the problem, too! (grin)

  12. You think the “coach experience” isn’t way worse than before, it’s because you only fly coach domestically. Try flying in coach for a 10 hour flight.
    I’m 6’2″ and my company only pays my tickets in coach (and I only get the discounted fares that don’t allow upgrades), so I can speak first hand about how bad it is.

  13. @Denis – I guess what I would be looking for is how the coach experience has gotten *worse* (not that it’s BAD — I’ve flown coach SYD-HNL-DFW-FAT for instance the bulk on a full American airlines DC-10 back in the day, I wonder how coach was less bad 20 year ago?

  14. “Coach pitch hasn’t decreased.”

    You obviously haven’t flown Southwest this year. Southwest has added a row of seats in coach by reducing pitch, claiming that knee room is preserved. My knees disagree.

    Alaska is adding a row on 737-900’s. On FlyerTalk, we call this “enhancement” Even More Seats. You could also call it Less Room Throughout Coach or Even Less Legroom. I expect the compressed seating to keep ticket prices 2% to 4% less than what they would otherwise be. I’d rather pay the extra money and have reasonable room, but the market has ruled otherwise.

  15. I agree with the comment about 10 across in coach being worse. Put simply, AA 772 is 9 across and AA 77W is 10 across. Up until june you could fly LAX-LHR direct on a 772 while now it’s a 77W. Compared to last year coach HAS got worse in this instance.

  16. The NYT article captures the core of the air travel experience today. It is not a documentary. Kudos to it. The author of this blog tries to make a factual analysis to the NYT article, it does not add to the core idea and makes pretty delusional claims, for example, “Coach travel isn’t getting materially worse”, “Only international premium services are improving” Let me put it in plain words, what planet does he/she lives in?

  17. Gary, there was more legroom, the food was better (not much better, I know), there actually was silverware and glasses – have you tried to cut anything using those plastic knives?

  18. Having flown domestic coach and first class for over 40 years, I feel confident in saying that domestic coach has declined in quality. HOWEVER, what was a rare, incredible event in 1970 is now utterly commonplace. I remember dressing up, going with mom and dad to the airport, being treated like royalty on the plane, pilots and FA’s giving this kid all kinds of goodies, food, etc. No way is the experience the same today. But come on, 99%-ers, you actually GET TO FLY in 2013 almost anytime you choose for a few hundred bucks, whereas in 1970 there was no way the average Joe could afford it. It’s an entirely different ballgame.

  19. It is not the class but the kind of people that travel in that class. Coach is synonym with Jerry Springer’s audience type of crowd. And after 9/11, it has gotten even worse. Cant stand a loud, inconsiderate jerk, wearing sandals and full of nail fungus.

    But you are right, domestic first is getting its share of ghetto passengers as well.

  20. There are a couple of areas where today’s coach trumps that of the past; one is price- I fly all over the place on dirt cheap fares. I can fly cross country for a couple of hundred bucks and then have to pay $70 for a stinky cab ride home from the airport (and no, the cabbie does not offer me free cokes and snacks). Secondly- the elimination of smoking trumps almost any factor you can list.

  21. Thanks for a more objective look at air travel’s differences over the past decade or three than the NYT column (while we’re on the subject of deteriorating quality, let’s look at major U.S. city daily newspapers). To begin with, Gary, your stats on inflation adjusted ticket-plus-fees costs compared to those of the “thrilling days of yesteryear” are unassailable. That certainly has irrefutably “democratized” flying, the greatest effect of which, not surprisingly has been on coach.
    I also agree, based on my experience when I, as one of those middle class warriors who achieved elite status, often could upgrade to domestic First: the in-flight experience in domestic First has deteriorated more, proportionally, than coach’s.
    But several previous comments in the comment thread correctly note that many of the passengers with whom you are flying in coach today attire and comport themselves as though they are taking Greyhound between Asbury Park and Camden (although that may be unfairly maligning Greyhound).
    Nonetheless I think you’ve overlooked the biggest difference I see in the Coach experience: the (admittedly overworked, underpaid, mistreated) airline employees (who’ve lost their retirement and their job security and now are required to process twice as many flyers as an employee was expected to process 25 years ago) often treat coach passengers without elite status, while on the ground, as a herd of unruly cattle. That’s on top of the experience the passengers have had contending with TSA (which is uneven from airport to airport).
    Even as recently as 25-30 years ago, when flying coach, especially on the smaller-but-still-substantial carriers (Southwest, Frontier, AirWest), the passengers were treated personally and respectfully — in a friendly manner. (Of course the passengers usually were attired and comported themselves in a manner to inspire such treatment. Guess I’m demonstrating I’m a fossil who’s cheating the undertaker.)
    I am quite nervous about challenging you with respect to pitch in coach, but while some airlines — or, more particularly, some aircraft — probably haven’t reduced pitch, I would bet my own $$ (which I almost never do), based on the experience of my knees, that there have been some such reductions. And I’ve read that as well (not opinion pieces, but articles citing inches and fractions thereof).
    Maybe, in all this, we can see a glimmer of (very faint) hope (famous last words): I’m guessing that we’re to a point where some of the airlines simply cannot physically reduce pitch any further in coach, and that a few (such as AA with its 10-across 77W) can’t reduce seat width any further.
    Here’s a final comment, statistics to the side: I often looked forward to flights in economy 25, 30, 40 years ago (not just to being transported affordably to a destination I looked forward to reaching, but to the flight experience itself). I’ve not looked forward in the past 10+ years to ANY — indeed, invariably I dread ALL — of the airport and flight experiences for coach flights on every airline (although I admit I’ve not taken a long-haul [e.g. U.S. to Asia] coach flight on some of the best foreign airlines such as Singapore, Thai, or Cathay, and I’ll hold open the possibility that, maybe, their coach experience is enjoyable and worth looking forward to; their business and first experiences compared to those on U.S. airlines on the same routes certainly are).
    Bottom line: I agree with you the NYT column was engaging not in sound, fact-based journalism, but in “tone setting” or “cheer leading.” You appropriately called the author out.

  22. ” Coach is synonym with Jerry Springer’s audience type of crowd.”

    How unfortunate for you that you must mix with hoi polloi on those instances where you cannot fly private. Are there no gated communities where the riff raff can be kept in their places, save for when they need to clean your toilets and shine your shoes?

  23. Really nailed this one, Gary. What it comes down to is that all boats are rising, but folks are too busy, either: 1) staring at the faster-rising boats (international premium) or 2) focusing on the general inequality, even if the higher boats are declining (domestic “premium”) to appreciate that their boat is rising as well.

  24. Gary’s article missed the NYT’s point. The point is that, unless you fly First Class on some specific foreign carriers (Emirates, Cathay and the like), the flying experience today sucks. Worse: it will not get any better any time soon. There is not hope, so bite the bullet and adapt. It is not surprising though. This is the way airlines maximize profits, it works in today’s uncertain economy with price-minded leisure flyers and corporations. In my opinion the flying experience is going south quicker that most people realize, Gary’s blog contributes to the delusion. The NYT article might be hyperbolic in some of its comments, yes, but I can’t imagine any better way to summarize the many nightmares I had witness first hand the last few years. I did several tens of transatlantic and transpacific flights in (paid) First and Business Class on United, American and Delta. Gary, things are not improving. Realty check please! The number of complaint letters I have sent to airlines’ customers services is steadily increasing. I reach the point of writing letters in behalf of others, noting the totally unprofessional behavior towards less experienced travelers (Yes, customer facing employes are overworked and have no job security, but none does this days. There is no excuse to have an attitude). Your blog challenges the NYT article with partial business facts and misses the point. Your business like analysis contradicts common sense and experience. That’s all it matters. It only contributes with noise and a distorted reality. Airlines could use your blog as a marketing tool. It might help to appease the masses, the ones who might read your blog and happily pay for (or now long for) a ‘new’ highly downgraded service.

  25. @Daniel that isn’t actually the point the NYT piece is trying to make at all, it is trying to argue that air travel illustrates the class divide in the United States with the rich getting richer and poor getting poorer. The point of my article is whatever the truth there may be in the larger policy debates, air travel is not illustrative of the sort of class divide the author posits.

  26. NYT’ is about what premium and coach class means today for the 99.99%: Promise of Four Season’s, when you are really getting Holiday Inn express’ services and how people struggle to attain a glorified bad service. Check the the use of “quotes” and irony. NYT is about the pain, the struggle and the irony. For marketing reason airlines happily go along to accentuate the differences and profit on the class struggle. For the airlines, it’s part of the game, I understand it. The irony is that most people still enters a class struggle for a product of decreasing value.

    Now, I have a hard time accepting a private contributor to add to the distortion of the facts. Please don’t look at minor sporadic corrections which only have marketing impact.

    There is a clear trend: Medicine, communications and even air travel safety are improving, air travel service/experience is getting much worse in coach and premium classes, domestic and international.

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