The Real Reason Coach Travel Isn’t As Pleasant As It Used To Be

The reason that air travel in coach isn’t as luxurious as it was 50 years ago is because of deregulation. Air travel is much less expensive. Planes are full – and the number one determinant of a pleasant flight in back is whether you have an empty seat next to you. Airlines don’t operate with the high margins they did when government prevented them from competing with each other on price. As a result they don’t invest in luxurious food to lure travelers away from competitors, since they weren’t allowed us use low prices.

There’s more to the story than that – there were real innovations like all-business class Legend Airlines (itself a creature of regulatory arbitrage) and Midwest Airlines didn’t stop serving cookies until long after deregulation – but it’s the basic explanation, and any story about changes in air travel that fails to explain how air travel changed in the absence of the Civil Aeronautics Board which acted to prevent ‘ruinous competition’ but which failed in many ways to do this is doing readers a disservice.

Jennifer Billock purports to offer a history of different classes of service in aviation at The Points Guy. She promises to explain why inflight experiences have gotten worse, and a history of different products. Only she doesn’t offer an explanation of why and many of the details in her history are wrong.

Why Coach Travel Is No Longer Luxurious

Billock begins by saying all travel used to be great, and now it’s rotten, and promises to explain why it all changed. Nevermind that some things have improved for everyone – affordability, safety, inflight entertainment (even when you have to stream it yourself) and internet for instance. And nevermind that she actually charts an improvement in premium cabins.

One area where there’s been a real decline in economy class is food (although airline food used to be the butt of late night comdedian jokes) and in some cases seat pitch.

The golden age of flying in the 1950s and 60s was all glitz and glamour, full of gourmet meals, copious drinks, enough leg room to stretch out, and enough cigarette smoke to create a dreamy haze to reminisce through. Everyone was treated like a star.

Now, you’re lucky if the person in front of you doesn’t slam their chair down onto your knees while the person behind you has their bare feet propped up next to your head. And don’t get us started on the state of airline food.

So what happened? How did we go from first-class glam for everyone to the often less-than-spectacular cabins inside planes today?

The problem here is despite asking what happened, and asking how we went from “first class glam for everyone” to where we are today, she never actually tells us. In fact the words “Airline Deregulation Act” don’t appear anywhere in the piece. Here’s why it was a major driver of change:

  • The airline industry got its own regulatory agency coming out of the Air Mail Scandal. Government regulated where airlines could fly and what prices they could charge.

  • Prices were kept high. Government’s role was viewed as ensuring profitability of airlines.

  • While government acted to prevent competition (until the last years of the Civil Aeronautics Board under Chairman John Robson ‘experimented’ with price competition, allowing Texas International Airlines “peanuts fares” and American Airlines super savers among others), that didn’t actually stop competition. When each marginal passenger was profitable, airlines competed for those passengers.

  • Since airlines couldn’t compete on price, they competed on amenities. Congress, in its oversight of the Civil Aeronautics Board, even discussed at one time whether they needed to regulate the thickness of sandwiches to prevent this sort of competition.

Deregulation lowered prices and made air traffic more accessible, but meant that airlines weren’t competing over the same margins.

Of course – given regulatory capture – it’s easy to see why Ms. Billock confuses the Civil Aeronautics Board with an industry group (“In 1952, airline groups (the CAB domestically and International Air Transport Association abroad) began allowing multi-fare flights, combining a standard class and the coach class with lower service.”).

I’m Not Sure Her History Of Cabins Is Right, Either

Besides believing that the Civil Aeronautics Board, a U.S. government regulatory agency created during the Roosevelt administration, was an industry trade association responsible for permitting the sale of multiple classes of service she also attributes rising oil prices in the 1950s through 1970s as a cause of change in the airline experience. Oil prices were stable and even declining slightly in inflation-adjusted terms until 1973.

The 50s to the 70s saw the introduction of safer planes and room for even more passengers, but also higher operating costs thanks to increasing oil prices.

Although she says “seats were even more packed in to make up for the deficit” caused by higher fuel prices, she also suggests that larger aircraft during this period actually “increase[d] service offerings for each class.” In the narrative perhaps these two effects cancel out because though she suggests airlines squeezed in more seats, but also increased service, that – while there were improvements in premium cabins – “economy stayed the same.”

This history though seems off:

In the 90s, some airlines (like Delta and Continental) began to merge business and first class seats in order to make the expensive offerings even more appealing to passengers. This meant the introduction of yet another class — premium economy — that midrange passengers could use, sandwiched between economy and business.

Delta BusinessElite and Continental BusinessFirst did not ‘mean[..] the introduction of..premium economy.” Continental never offered a premium economy product. Delta didn’t introduce premium economy until 2017.

In 1992 Continental got rid of first class and introduced better seats in business, increased pitch by 15″ and upgraded dining. Their earlier business seats were like premium economy seats today. They upgraded their cabins over just a six month time period.

In the early 2000s, business class officially surpassed first class. British Airways started it by launching the first fully lie-flat bed. American, Northwest, Continental, Delta, and United didn’t want to be out done, so they followed suit. The race to claim those wealthy customers led to even more improvements, like suites with privacy, sliding doors, larger in-seat entertainment systems, and now even entire apartments with en-suite bathrooms and showers inside planes.

Business class did not “surpass[..] first class” and certainly did not do so “officially.” However business class seats eventually surpassed seats that were once offered in first class. In 2000 British Airways began rolling out a flat bed seat in business class, but it didn’t feature first class soft product and first class improved too.

And it’s not correct to say that all the U.S. airlines followed suit – United didn’t start installing flat beds in business class until 2008, American didn’t have its first flat bed business seat until 2013.

Furthermore the suggestion that “suites with privacy, sliding doors” came after this (but then how can business class have surpassed first class?) fails to realize that as far back as 1950 United Airlines offered a private state room on board its Boeing 377 Stratocruisers.

The Future Of Air Travel Is Less Commoditized

When customers search for air travel, they’re presented mostly with schedule and price and so make their purchase decision based largely on schedule and price (although British Airways research shows that brand influences purchase decisions, too).

Increasingly however airlines will be providing information about the full travel experience that will be used as customers compare their flight options. A new standard is being developed and deployed by the industry-owned fare distribution firm ATPCO which will let customers understand everything from seat type, to meals, to lounge access and internet speed.

That supports greater product differentiation – which is the opposite of Billock’s hope when she concludes, “Hey, maybe posh business class seats will edge out everything, and we’ll finally enter into a new golden age of air travel.”

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. I find economy class in the US better and worse.

    The bad:
    cramped seating
    crowds of people on the plane (before an empty seat next to you was very common)
    basic economy limiting carry on (United, Spirit)
    non-refundable tickets that are too costly to change
    rental car centers away from terminals (not economy class related)
    no more magazines, some airlines don’t even have an airline magazine
    no trinkets like playing cards
    no ticket jacket to keep receipts
    no free food
    larger lavatories
    no charge for checked luggage
    a few milk run routes discontinued (I have flown on milk runs and flew only to the next city)
    less padding on the seats

    The good:
    IFE (except American)
    availability of internet
    much wider availability of flights (pre-deregulation, there might be just one am flight), more non-stops, more flights to hubs
    lower ticket prices
    one way ticketing and no Saturday night stay required
    some frequent flyer benefits (started in 1981 or so)
    larger carry on bins (and wheeled luggage)
    electrical outlets
    winged headrests
    slightly safer
    no more smoke from smokers

    I would say that today is better with the exception of food and cramped seating. Food I can buy at the terminal or bring food with me. Cramped seating, nothing I can do. Even premium economy is not much better. The width hasn’t changed much as the 737 is still 3+3, not 3+4.

  2. Thank you for this! The “article” published by TPG was beyond terrible and a pathetic attempt at clicks. I appreciate someone taking the time to correct the record.

  3. When it comes to the economy class service for flights that is provided by the airlines’ customer-facing employees, it is worse now than it was ten years ago, worse now than it was twenty years ago, worse now than it was thirty years ago, and it’s worse now than it was forty years ago. So at which cherry-picked points in time does credit or blame still get assigned to Jimmy Carter and the US Senate Democrats for the airline deregulation act? When should they get credit or blame for the changed rebate value issued in the form of airline loyalty program benefits?

  4. TPG has had multiple articles recently that were riddled with inaccuracies. A little more time editing and a little less time organizing it own awards show would seem appropriate.

  5. Wait, you mean TPG got all the facts of an article wrong and completely made everything up? Shocked. Shocked I say! Next you’ll be telling us that bloggers do trips reports for the tax write off or recommend credit cards based on the conversion. Pure heresy!

  6. Whenever I travel to Asia, I travel international on an Asian airline like JAL, ANA, or EVA. Many others have me with my knees digging into the seat in front of me.

    For within the USA I fly Delta when I can because of the same issue. I always am ask by the flight attendant if I can not have my knees touch, but it is a lost cause as the realize.

  7. My first flight would have been circa 1970.

    I have to say, that at that time I was certainly annoyed that there was no Internet connectivity. Definite improvement.

  8. Thanks for taking to task someone who obviously didn’t actually do any research. Probably used Wikipedia as a resource. Nothing was that great about flying in the 1960s or 70s.

  9. Wasn’t it Alfred Kahn that started the deregulation of the airlines?

    I’m a very old guy and used to fly Pan Am TATL. Used to be just F and Y – Rainbow class. Then they started Clipper Class – the predecessor of business class I imagine.

    The best book on this subject is Hard Landings. Well worth reading.

  10. In-fight entertainment options are way better of course, but the service from the airline employees in terms of ground service and cabin service and the post-ticket-purchase nickle and diming is way worse now than it used to be. Cabin comfort in economy class with regard to seat width, space between seats when reclined or otherwise and aisle space and lavatory space is worse now and seems to sort of be getting worse over recent years than was the case a decade or two ago. Meal and beverage service included in the economy class service on legacy majors is more miserly than it used to be.

    Business class is way better than it used to be, but the well-off becoming better off and the gap between the upper end and the rest when flying has again grown wider just like with the socio-economic situation at large in much of the world.

  11. @Airfarer – Alfred Kahn was the last Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board, and favored deregulation. The Airline Deregulation Act’s primary sponsor was Senator Ted Kennedy, whose chief counsel working on the act was now-Justice Stephen Breyer. It was signed by Jimmy Carter.

    However prior to Kahn becoming CAB chair the Board was already moving in a more market-friendly direction under Chairman John Robson.

  12. The most nonsensical part of that piece is, “and enough cigarette smoke to create a dreamy haze to reminisce through. Everyone was treated like a star.” What? If there is one thing that is unquestionably 100% better about air travel today, it is the ban on smoking. I have read an item from a file kept by my late father, written in the 1950s, which is an exchange of letters between him and an airline, in which he politely raises the question of whether a non smoking section could be set up so that those who don’t smoke would not need to be engulfed in smoke throughout a flight. The airline replies that most of their customers enjoy smoking and they have no plans for changing their policies.

  13. I had the pleasure of flying the last DC-3 that was in the NWA livery.

    Wide naugahyde armchairs, plenty of leg room, curtains on windows… I expected it to be in black and white to match pictures I had seen online. Flight crew dressed in period clothing, just for kicks.

    OTOH… two big prop engines, slow as all get-out due to lower altitude flying , and noisy.

    While we may not like to admit it, in some ways today’s frequent flier can get from place to place much quicker… unless we choose not to for various status runs. We breeze though TSA lines with pre-check, grab a snack in a club, still get upgrades, and better seating, and sometimes comped food and drink ion the flight f we have to sit behind the curtain.

    Do I miss some of the perks that Europeans have in their frequent traveler programs? Sure… but then again, I miss some of the perks that they have as citizens of their countries. We Americans are getting pretty used to a boot in our face unless we can pay up dearly. Our choice. and we keep pulling the wrong lever to keep making it happen.

  14. TPG was once a great travel blog, but has been been turned into a decreasingly worthwhile site with so many misleading or unhelpful articles written by a slew of rotating cast members who have probably never flown on a plane during the “smoking allowed” Era (so don’t wax poetic about it…lame).

  15. My first flight was in 1958 on a Eastern Airlines Lockheed Constellation. I was 9 and seat pitch wasn’t a consideration.

    Now my best indication of a good trip is getting an exit row seat.

    Elimination of smoking is the best improvement since deregulation.

    Being able to deplane a 727 by the rear stairway was a big plus.

  16. I’m assuming that TPG points out that you can still get that luxury Golden Age by paying roughly the same price as in the 50s by flying first class, right?

  17. Passengers fared much better back in the 80s and 90s when there was competition and the deregulated business was still taking shape. Airlines went bankrupt frequently , load factors in the 80% range were considered full, compared to every seat going out full today. Mileage earning and awards were plentiful, and there were promos like “fly 20 segments, get a free J ticket to Asia” for example (I did that on Delta). Or the famous scratch card promo on Continental in 1985 or 1986.

    But most of all: where have all the honey roasted peanuts gone!

  18. Dereg certainly plays a role but the price of providing almost anything has been falling with computers (see time-price theory). So why with the airlines is competition expressed solely in terms of price? Why is an FA’s smile expensive? Training costs? My guess is the financialization of everything means that if Scott Kirby can’t measure it, it does not exist, and these folk don’t know how to measure good service or value customer satisfaction. So they go with what they know.

  19. Airline deregulation went too far. It is almost like airlines have Carte-Blanche to do whatever they please.
    If utilities, the chemical industry, food, etc. were deregulated as the airlines are, people would pay through the nose for electricity while suffering constant brownouts, rivers and lakes would be full with toxic waste, and people would be sick from poisonous food 24/7.

  20. More luxurious back then? Not for non-smokers who were stuck choking on fumes in a smoker’s paradise while sitting in seats where the ashtray in every armrest was overflowing.

  21. “the number one determinant of a pleasant flight in back is whether you have an empty seat next to you”

    Gary for the win

  22. Coach is actually the best its ever been. Low prices is what 95% of customers want and that is what they are getting.

  23. @ Asian Miler

    Yes, the post is informative/insightful but not complete. You travel some of the same routes I do. Airlines are deregulated in many Asian countries. However, the US3 are the worse and I will pay a premium to avoid them over the Pacific. On the other hand, Singapore is priced at a premium and successful.

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