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.