A caste system in the sky

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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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Very good points, especially the inflight entertainment in economy! I recall travelling transatlantic and transpacific flights in economy back in 90s when the only inflight entertainment available was 2-3 movies from those TVs from the center aisle.
    When international airlines like Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, etc. started inflight entertainment with movie-on-demand back ten years ago, my economy class flight experience changed dramatically! A 10 hour flight would feel like a 3-4 hours instead!

  2. Not taking side but Atlas has a point:
    People laugh and feign outrage when they read/watch stories about the Titanic not understanding that the very same is happening today.

    Instead, during the Titanic days, most of the travel were on own’s own dime. Most of the business seats now are paid by companies with said employees enjoying and earning the perks for future travel through their own employment. i.e. paid by the company though the work of all employees.

    With the new revenue based systems, there will even be a conflict of interest. Will employees still be incentivized to look for the cheapest fare available?

  3. Thanks for the welcome corrective and context for all the negativity about air travel today.

  4. Glad you addressed the article. Did you submit it to the nyt so the erroroneous claims can be refuted at the source?

  5. Don’t confuse anyone with facts. 🙂 I have not laid eyes on a bigger piece of bullsh*t than that article in a while…. well, at least a few days.

  6. Yeah! It’s about time someone pointed out the what travel “in the good old days” really meant. It was very expensive and it was exclusive. And thanks for pointing out the fact there are no amenity kits on domestic flights – between New York and Miami nonetheless! Ditto on the china.
    And I am tired also of all the airline bashing that goes on today. I just read an NPR story about the unhappy passengers who were angry about how the airlines dealt with rescheduling/rerouting passengers as a result of the SFO tragedy. It was mind boggling to read how angry people were because the airlines would not pay for their hotel, food or get them where they wanted to go – immediately. There was a complete lack of understanding of the complexities involved with shutting down a major US airport – which happens to be the one I fly in and out of almost every week. Nor was there any empathy for the human tragedy that had occurred.
    Again thanks and I wish your article would get onto the pages of the Times.

  7. I think you are missing the point.

    The article was about society, expressed through air travel.

    You are talking solely about air travel.

    While it is true that the “have-nots” have more than they had yesterday, the contrasts between themselves and the “haves” have got more obvious and in your face to all.

    The fact that the medicine in the emergency room for the uninsured is better than the medicine available to anyone 500 years ago is completely missing the point.

    You couldn’t get on that train 50 years ago. You had no reference point. Today you have a reference point. you have nothing and THEY have everything.

    Pointing out that it must be JetBlue and they don’t have a curtain is just churlish. Allow someone to make a point that is 100 times bigger than the one you are replying to and try considering it in context.

    1. I guess, even after reading your comment boisterousbob, that I’m still confused.

      If we want to compare what is possible for the haves and the have nots today versus 50 years ago then Atlas has failed even worse. Fifty years ago there is no way that virtually anyone flying in Economy today could have afforded air travel. Probably not rail travel, either. Today they can. Maybe not every week or even every month, but millions more are able to go somewhere now who couldn’t before. Since they couldn’t do it 50 years ago we cannot compare the service quality, right? Isn’t that what you’re suggesting?

      Cheaper air fares, while turning the market into a cost commodity rather than a service commodity from the CAB days, mean that the travel experience for so many is better than it possibly could have been 50 years ago. Flying, even in coach, is a far better experience than a cross-country train or bus trip for most. Faster, safer and often cheaper, too.

      If the point is that the first class experience is better than coach and that’s supposed to be a metaphor for life then, well, who cares? There is always going to be a spread between the top and bottom. And looking at commercial aviation as a representation of society is a really, really bad idea. Should I be mad that someone who wants to pay $18,000 for a round trip F seat from JFK-LHR can afford to do so? They don’t get 18x the space I get for my $1,000 coach seat. They don’t get 18x the meal, either. And they don’t get there any faster than I do. I can buy in to the AA lounge for $50, buy the Five Star service for $150 to get the check-in and security line treatment and even pay a bit more to get MCE, getting a bit more legroom and width on the planes Atlas describes.

      I’ll take air travel at a bargain price, with the opportunity to pay more for the services you want, versus what was available in the past. This is a much, much better situation for way more people and society as a whole.

      @Stringer Bell: Yes, I’ve contacted the NYT to point out that they have published what amounts to a series of lies and half-truths.

      @Minos: Yes, employees will game the system. Just like they do today. Slightly different rules, but really the same game. Business travel by air has certainly existed for the past 30 years, if not the past 50. Maybe the FAs aren’t hotties as much anymore (I skipped that part of Atlas’s story, but it is in there) but if that’s how we’re measuring the quality of the experience then society is way more screwed than I thought.

  8. i DEFINITELY don’t miss the so called “gool ole days” air travel

    back then you have 38″ recliner seats passing off as international first, people smoking onboard, and you have to dress your sunday’s best just to head to the airport

    today i get flat bed, 32″ tv, caviar, smoke-free, wifi, showers, and engines so quiet you could barely notice them during cruise

  9. Jackline is spot on. I remember First Class in the old days and it was no great shakes unless you drank a lot. What I do fly FC now, it’s a lot better with better seats (beds too) and even when it’s domestic, being able to watch a movie or really stretch out is great.

    I actually find Economy better these days. I know it’s crowded but planes are safer than they were, there is less turbulence due to navigational improvements, and with a few extra dollars where I don’t have status, I can usually get a reasonably comfortable seat. Also, love it or hate, Zone Boarding is more efficient.

    I think a lot of the critique of mass market flying is rooted in snobbery. Yes, people don’t dress well and some are boorish but it’s not really the horror show that people make it out to be.

    And by the way, hotels are heck of a lot better all over the price spectrum than they used to be.

  10. I have a hard time with Boisterousbob’s comment — how can a poorly written and even more poorly researched metaphor be interpreted to be an accurate representation of society. For one – who’s “they”? Dealing with such absolutes (you have nothing, “they” have everything), is seldom, if ever accurate. Its not always black or white.

    Further, to use air travel, what was viewed as a luxury in the “good old days”, and is still a luxury for many.

    Besides, if the author is displeased with the difference of service, he can fly Southwest, where every passenger gets peanuts (unless there is an allergy, then its pretzels) and a beverage. Of course, he would likely disagree with those who boarded in the A-Group because they purchased a “Business Select” fare, or perhaps even those traveling with families, who get to board after the A-group.

  11. I don’t have an opinion on the article in question, but I will point out that it is fashionable among many of the people who are complaining about it (notably excepting Seth) to say “Oh, I would never spend more than X hours in economy these days”.

    If economy is so good-as-it-ever-was and first class worse, why has an entire industry of points-and-mile advisers sprung up dedicated, in large part, to getting people into the front of the plane?

  12. Atlas’s other misleading piece of nonsense is the claim that American’s “premier service” is “an elite category for those who can afford to pay approximately $18,000 for a round-trip ticket to London.” No, it’s not. It’s a category for people who fly first class, regardless of how they obtain their ticket. That’s a howler worthy of a NYT correction.

  13. @Jackline, thanks for your comments. My dad was a frequent business traveler in the 50s and 60s, and he wrote letters to airline heads to ask them to do something about smoking on planes since it bothered him. I still have copies of the correspondence in which they engage in platitudes about how many of our customers enjoy smoking while aboard the plane, and we will keep your ideas in mind as we review our polices, blah, blah, blah.

    In the early years of my air travel, stewardesses would come down the aisle before takeoff offering cigarettes. I dreaded the possibility of smoke in my face throughout the flight. Even if the person next to me would kindly ask if it bothered me, the person two rows back would not. The good old days? NEVER!

  14. WA-, I appreciate your response to this article. And how you note that in real life, inequality IS getting worse. That’s what annoys me most about this article. It sort of starts with a premise that is true (rising inequality), and tries to support that premise with something basically made up. Even if we grant that he is using a hypothetical flight that is really a conglomeration of several flights (one of them being jet blue nyc-mia, but also including some kind of international flight where there actually is a “curtain”), he still can’t make his point truthfully even within that framework. Air travel seems like such a great metaphor for the separation of different classes in society… except once you get past the very surface, it’s a terrible metaphor for inequality in society.
    It’s disappointing that the new york times published this article. And it takes up almost the entire from of the Sunday Review section. The subtitle is “What’s happening above the clouds mirrors what’s happening on the ground.” Except it doesn’t. But something is happening on the ground. Surely someone could come up with a hook for communicating that to readers without having to distort the reality of air travel??

  15. Just as a follow-up to my previous comments, I am a 1K on United as is my husband. All of my miles are on our dime and many of his are. Almost five years ago my husband was transferred to the SF Bay area. I remain in the midwest for a variety of reason including my business, family and friends. However, every week one of us gets on a United flight (primarily me) and flies in and out of SFO. This year I will log over 130,000 miles on United which includes three overseas trips. My spouse does travel for business although I see nothing fun about SFO to EWR even in economy plus on a regular basis. No his company does not pay for First on domestic routes. And yes he gets miles on his company’s dime but he gives as much as he gets – I know our grandchildren think his job title is “conference call” as in that’s what he does on vacation and early in the morning on those east coast and overseas calls. So those business travelers that subsidize casual travelers do “pay” one way or the other for their “perks.”
    I fly with a number of regular business travelers – and sometimes I get the upgrade and sometimes they do – and sometimes none of us do. I get kidded that 7C (we fly on A319s and 20s) should have my name on it since I have given up a seat in the front to sit there (actually E+ bulkhead on these planes is better IMO than row 2 or 3 in First) Since our flight is the only nonstop between STL and SFO those of us who are regulars are just grateful that United picked this flight up after American ditched it in early 2010. We cheer for an on time departure, good weather and arrivals in the domestic rather than international terminal at SFO. A bonus is having one or more of our favorite flight attendants on board. As to the “curtain” I’ve never seen a UA flight attendant turn anyone away – sometimes they forget to pull it! Once I saw a Global Services flyer berate the FA for allowing someone not in first to use the restroom. (I know he was GS because he was the only one when we boarded) but not the FA.
    Without the democratization of airline travel either my husband or I would have had to give up our career, change jobs or have no job at all. There is no way we could have afforded the dollars it would have taken in the “good old days” to live with our arrangement.
    And for all of those people complaining – here’ my complaint – “stop complaining” and appreciate the fact that you have the means and opportunity to fly today. I am definitely not a pollyanna but there are issues this country faces that are far more troubling than flying,the TSA and whether you get peanuts or popcorn.

  16. I guess my only comment would be that criticising the author is silly because should not expect him to express our inside view and superior knowledge.

    I think the author’s view more accurately represents the common interpretation than we do, and there is no harm in recognising that.

    I think that the travel metaphor for society is apt. People don’t compare 50 years ago, they view inequalities they see today and why should we expect them to behave any differently?

    By many metrics the spread between have and have not is never greater. In air travel this is true whether through purchased or “earned” tickets. Long haul first class has a gigantic spread on coach so much so that many airlines are dispensing with it entirely.

    While I agree the detail everything Seth says, expecting the general public to understand all of this, or an institution like the Times to express it, is just unreasonable.

    I can have no issue with the author’s article any more than I take issue always snagging the best seat or upgrade for pennies on the dollar personally.

    I don’t see why we need to pick on such articles. It is like a pilot complaining that the general public does not understand the difference between ILS and VASI. Satisfying to the in crowd, maybe. But unproductive and irrelevant generally.

    1. “By many metrics the spread between have and have not is never greater. In air travel this is true whether through purchased or “earned” tickets. Long haul first class has a gigantic spread on coach so much so that many airlines are dispensing with it entirely.”

      Maybe (and I don’t completely agree), but that’s not the whole story. The rich have always had access to what they wanted to have. Today it is flat beds in the sky. Fifty years ago it was the fancy train and 100 years ago it was the best berths on an ocean liner.

      But 100 years ago far fewer of the less wealthy had access to safe travel by ship than have access to safe air travel today. And 50 years ago the relative costs – cash and time – for long distance train travel were arguably higher than many discount airfares today. The in-flight experience might not be luxe for those passengers, but I’d argue that they are doing much better relative to the rich in terms of access to safe, timely, reliable, affordable transit than they were in prior generations. The rich always had it in some form. Today the “have nots” have far more than they used to in that context.

  17. I saw the article before Seth wrote about it and had the same concerns. It’s fair to have a critique on society, but this is bad journalism because the author fabricated his own “facts” about the business and first class cabins on a domestic flight between NY and Miami.

    If the author wanted to make a general critique of society, there are actual facts he could have used for that purpose, but what he wrote doesn’t qualify.

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