In the film Jerry Maguire, Renee Zellweger looks forward from the coach cabin and tells her son, ” First class, that’s what’s wrong. It used to be a better meal, now it’s a better life.”
Except… she’s flying domestically and so that statement hardly seems true at all.
Jeff Martin passes along an Atlanta Journal Constitution piece on Delta’s investments in their premium cabin product that can’t resist the urge to frame the issue as the haves and have nots.
Over the years, airlines have been squeezing more seats into the back of the plane and have removed some extras like free checked bags and meals. Now, much of their attention is on ever-more luxurious seats and amenities for those up front, where the profits are.
The comparison really doesn’t hold water at all. Coach hasn’t actually gotten meaningfully worse, domestic first class hasn’t gotten better. International premium cabins have largely improved, but that’s almost exclusively a function of the seats (hard product) rather than anything else.
International Premium Cabin Flying is Getting Better
That’s mostly because of the seats. Business class seats aren’t recliner chairs anymore, for the most part. Angled seats that were originally marketed as flat really weren’t, Singapore called them “spacebeds” but they were derisively referred to as “wedgie seats” since you’d slide down the angle and …. Although most “angled flat” seats aren’t really even that at all, they just have more recline and the legs go up further.
The international standard in business class has become the flat bed, something that international first class hasn’t always offered. It takes up more space. Delta offers a pretty good business product on many of their planes, but there’s aren’t even world-leading (the 747s have Sicma Aero Cirrus seats — tied for best in the world — and the A330s are getting them but the 777-200s have a lesser business seat, and their mainstay 767-300ERs are behind top standard as well.
And I’ve written in the past that business class is all about the seat. The most important function has gotten better. Some ancillary services have as well. That much is true. But it’s a mistake to conflate the back and front of the plane without drawing e domestic vs. foreign distinction, and the improvements haven’t come at the expense of coach (which in many cases offers a better travel experience than it did in the recent past as well).
Domestic First Class Isn’t Getting Better
US customers should probably be thrilled, I suppose, with the domestic first class products that American carriers offer. Asian airlines offer better regional products, to be sure, but the forward cabin inside the U.S. is far superior than the intra-Europe variety that’s generally just a blocked middle seat and no incremental legroom, plus food and drink. I was speaking with a British Airways executive last week who lamented the fact that they even needed to offer a forward cabin, suggesting that they offer it as a loss but it’s necessary for their intercontinental business — that customers booking premium cabins from London to destinations beyond Europe expected to be offered a premium seat for the feeder flight as well. (That’s not really correct of course — if they’d lose revenue from premium flights without Club Europe, then they should be attributing more of the revenue from those tickets to the Club Europe segment, it sounds to me like poor accounting on their part.)
But on the whole US domestic premium cabins are worse than they were 10 years ago. That’s certainly the case in terms of catering.
My first upgrade came 15 years ago this month. My first full year out of school I earned airline elite status for the first time, and the first upgrade I received was on a transcon flying Los Angeles – Washington Dulles aboard a United 777. There were many more widebody aircraft flying domestically back then, which came with better seats (those old recliner-style business class seats). And even though it was “only” business and didn’t get the full first class meal service — United would service cheesecake in business class but ice cream sundaes with dinner in two-cabin domestic first — things were still served in courses.
I still remember that meal. And at the time travelers would lament what had been lost relative to bygone days. I was served an almond-dusted shrimp appetizer, with plenty of shrimp, followed by a steak for my entrée.
Back around late spring 2001 United began cutting back its domestic first class meal service. The introduction of a ‘gourmet’ cheeseburger was controversial, and derided as hardly befitting first class food. But it was a good cheeseburger, much better than what’s sometimes offered in domestic first these days, with better quality ingredients and sides.
By all means, consider this all to be a #firstworldproblem but that misses the point. I’m not complaining about losing my steak when I fly domestically. I’m just suggesting it’s not the case of domestic first class getting objectively ‘better’ while the flying experience gets worse in back. Because domestic first hasn’t gotten objectively better.
Coach Flying Hasn’t Demonstrably Gotten Worse
Airfares have gone up since the Great Recession, but in inflation-adjusted terms they’re still materially lower than 10 years ago and much lower than 20 years ago — even when you add in ancillary fees.
So even though customers are paying more for their checked bags than back when those were bundled into ticket prices, they aren’t actually paying more than they were in the not too distant past.
And there’s been no meaningful reduction in seat pitch in domestic coach cabins (outside of Spirit Air). American used to offer “more room throughout coach” with every seat offering 33-34 inches between them (rather than the standard 31 inches). That business model didn’t work because people wouldn’t pay more for the seats.
But now we have more premium economy/extra legroom products across the board — from United, Delta, and American and also of course from JetBlue.
While meals may no longer be free (Continental was for a long time a holdout in offering free meals, or things approximating meals), with ticket prices lower in real terms than 10 and 20 years ago it’s not really the case that you pay more for a ticket and meal than you did before.
Plus — and I flew a coach segment on American on Sunday and had their buy on board brisket sandwich (admittedly comped to me as a 100,000 mile flyer) — I find that buy on board food is better than what we used to be offered for free. When people complain about the lack of free food, they quickly forget that airplane food used to be the butt of jokes. And frankly my sandwich on Sunday in coach tasted darned good.
The criticism that is true is that cabins are more full than they used to be. You used to get empty seats next to you much more often than before. So coach passengers may get less elbow room than they used to (which they didn’t used to pay for).
Airlines are better at constraining capacity, and at putting the right sized aircraft on a route, than they used to be. So there’s no free extra space. And when passengers are displaced, there’s much less slack in the system to just get onto another flight. Which makes having status during irregular operations really helpful, popping to the top of a waitlist. But that’s not really the flight experience itself.
One thing that full flights does do is make overhead bin space precious. Just be sure you aren’t the actual last to board and use the first overhead space you see in coach rather than waiting until you get all the way back to your seat. Or get the airline’s co-branded credit card.
For what it’s worth, the article pieces together several non-sequitors such as,
Delta also recently announced plans to make elite status even more elite, by raising the bar to reach “Medallion” status in its SkyMiles frequent flier program to require a minimum level of spending in addition to miles flown.
How making the status harder to obtain has any bearing on the quality of the international business class product is hard to discern, since Delta is the least generous with international upgrades of any of the major North American carriers (requiring purchase of nearly full fare tickets that are often as pricey as discounted advance purchase business) and even less generous than British Airways is (where you can upgrade premium economy to business for very few miles).
But then the claim that coach is getting worse while premium cabins get better also gives short shrift to the pimped out entertainment that Delta has in its inflight seatbacks, and the penetration of inflight wireless internet — not just offered throughout mainline flights (as American does) but also in regional jets. That’s for everyone, something no coach passengers had 10 years ago.
Ultimately planes are crowded, fares are historically reasonable, and airlines are investing in their product across the board — with a recognition that premium passengers pay an outsized portion of the bills. It would be great to see more articles highlighting the inflight improvements without trying to turn it into an us-versus-them discussion by stretching facts.