Christopher Elliott, who likely deserves a patent on making unsupported — and unsupportable — claims in columns about travel, has a new one: “Have travelers lost the class war?”
He pegs his piece on class warfare in the skies on the introduction of American’s new premium configuation Airbus A321 which will begin flying New York JFK – San Francisco next month. Oddly the class warfare didn’t begin when the plane started flying JFK – Los Angeles last month. Nor did lie flat seats on either route generate a class war when those were first offered by the incumbent competitors on the routes.
Here’s the meat of Elliott’s class struggle argument:
Meanwhile, ordinary passengers languish in crowded waiting areas and are wedged into airline seats that seem to shrink between flights. When they complain, they’re often angrily told by disgruntled airline employees that they get what they pay for.
The airline’s highest-spending customers are being lavished with more, while the rest give up their last shred of dignity, such as a humane amount of legroom and seat width or the ability to check a bag without paying extra. If it’s not bolted down in steerage class, there’s a charge for it these days. What’s more, this class conflict is playing itself out across the entire travel industry.
The divide between rich and poor has never been more obvious than in the air. And the airline industry has become quite comfortable with our collective deprivation
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.
Elliott’s class struggle claims — devoid of facts — ignore key realities:
- Coach travel isn’t actually ‘getting worse’ in any material sense, seat pitch isn’t being reduced, and indeed extra legroom seating in coach has become more widespread.
- Coach travel is getting less expensive (in inflation-adjusted prices, inclusive of fees).
- Domestic premium cabin travel is actually getting worse.
- Only international premium services, and a handful of New York – West Coast routes, 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, which Elliott despises, but which provide millions of free trips each year… including in premium cabins to the masses who would not otherwise pay.
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 Elliott gets it exactly backwards. Previously only money bought privilege, now many more of us can access it in the sky.
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.
The more stratified the travel industry becomes, the further we get from the dignified experience everyone deserves.
In that world, we’d be better off staying home.
… likely because he can’t accept that frequent flyer programs are ladders of opportunity.
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