I love a good rant. Really, I do. Especially when someone has put some thought in to it, building up a body of evidence to support their position and rail against some outrage so great that it simply cannot be ignored. And certainly the split between the rich and the poor – a growing problem – deserves to be addressed in that manner, right? James Atlas seems to think so and his opinion piece this past weekend in the NY Times goes after the airlines in a big way. It is truly a pity he misses so badly.
The basic premise of the piece is that the spread between first class and economy travel has never been greater, with the added factor that economy cabin travel is far, far worse today than any any point in history.
Statusization — to coin a useful term — is ubiquitous, no matter what your altitude.
And, to some extent that is actually true. The spread between a 31" pitch seat in a 3-4-3 layout on a 777 and a first class suite is probably the largest spread the industry has seen between the top and bottom offerings available. But that doesn’t mean that economy class travel is so bad. More to the point, the specific examples he gives are complete rubbish.
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. …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.
Well, the snack selection means it is a JetBlue flight and they don’t have a first class cabin, nor do they fly to Miami, though they do have 34" pitch at a minimum on most their planes, hardly knee-cap crushing. And no one is serving domestic meals on bone china; I’m not even sure airlines are doing that internationally anymore. The legroom in first on a domestic flight is rarely described as "tons" and I haven’t seen an amenity kit in a long time, save for the premium transcon routes.
Atlas claims that economy seat width has contracted by nearly 8 inches on some airlines in recent years. A strange claim considering that the seat width on the 737s has been pretty much the same since 1968 in a 3-3 layout.
Atlas bemoans frequent flyer programs and their status tiers:
But those in the back of the plane can fight all they want over their status. They’re still not getting any more legroom.
Except that they do. On United, Delta and American passengers with elite status do get more legroom. And others can, too, should the choose to pay for it.
And then, like most of these rants bemoaning the state of air travel today, there comes the call for the good old days.
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.
That’s true, I suppose. It was so luxurious that almost no one got to do it. Of course affordable airfare – fares remain at or near all-time lows in inflation-adjusted dollars – is a huge boon to the economy, to interpersonal relationships, to education and adds many other benefits to society. But Atlas doesn’t care because he’d have to pay extra for the more luxurious version (yes, it is available, it just costs more).
Atlas also seems to have come from quite the well-off background:
(We took the Super Chief from Chicago to California every winter, the porters swaying through the corridors with their dinner gongs as they summoned us to the dining room with the snowy dining cloths and the rose in a fluted vase.) The country was prosperous; if you weren’t rich, you felt rich.
The Super Chief was the luxe of passenger trains in the first half of 20th Century America. It connected LA to Chicago and it was nothing but class. It was also ridiculously expensive. Sure, that dining room had table cloths. It also had menus on board where you got to choose what you wanted to eat. Of course, those menus had prices on them. By 1970 (Atlas doesn’t mention what years those vacations were in) the dinner was $7.90 per person. That’s a hair over $47 in today’s money. The $2.30 a meal cost in 1938 would be $38 today. The roughly 40 hour trip would require buying, conservatively, 5 meals per person, so that’s an extra $200 on top of the already premium rail fare. It was hardly an experience for everyone "regardless of class station." A round trip on the Super Chief would cost more than a discounted advance purchase round trip on a major airline today, with the added trouble of taking 7x as long in each direction.
Anyway, it didn’t matter. There was no caste system….You were just a passenger, on your way to spend a few days with the grandparents or take the kids to Disneyland.
But it was a caste system. The fact that you could get on that plane meant you were already quite high on the ladder. That you could fly to see your grandparents or that you could afford a vacation in Disneyland meant you were already rich. You didn’t just feel that way; it was reality.
Yes, long-haul first class is better than it was 10 or 20 years ago. The seats are more like beds and, depending on the airline, the food and drinks can be pretty darn good, too. But things aren’t all doom and gloom in the back. In-seat entertainment, streaming media and internet connections are all options now on many flights. Newer planes are built to higher safety standards and the on-board comfort via pressurization and humidity are better today, too. Maybe things didn’t improve as much in economy as they have in first class, but first class is also disappearing from many markets so maybe it doesn’t matter so much.
If you have the cash you’ll always be able to buy a better experience. If you don’t have that much cash at least the opportunity to fly, to travel, to explore still exists. There always have been different levels of service available; that hasn’t changed. And I’m not even sure the spread has gotten all that much worse.
I am quite certain, however, that at least one guy is blinded by the luxury he enjoyed growing up and isn’t so happy with the realization that others can also now afford to travel. Of course, if he paid the same rates as his parents did back then his experience would likely be much better.
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