Even Less to Like About Flying Coach

Harold Meyerson does not like what’s happening to air travel:

Next month, JetBlue is adding a first-class section to its hitherto classless — but relatively classy — planes. By virtue of not having a first-class section, JetBlue has been able to provide something that most airlines have long since abolished: legroom for its passengers.

But the egalitarian seating plan has long since disappeared from nearly every airline, and JetBlue is a decided latecomer to the prevailing model of airline seating, which we will term the Piketty-Saez Seating Plan, or PSSP.

To be sure, airlines are in no way responsible for the polarization of income and wealth that defines our time. Increasingly, however, their seating plans reflect that polarization, with more and more space and amenities showered on their first-class passengers (whose fares rise accordingly), while less and less space and fewer — increasingly, no — amenities are provided to coach passengers.

In Capital in the 21st Century, economist Thomas Piketty provides data that show conclusively that our current level of economic inequality now is comparable to that at the start of the 20th-century — before two world wars, a Great Depression, and the reforms of the New Deal and European social democracy produced a more broadly shared prosperity.

A comparison of today’s airliners with the great fin-de-siecle passenger ships would reveal a similar disparity in their treatment of passengers — lavish accommodations for first class, and the bulk of the passengers in steerage. As a socio-economic tract, Titanic could be remade today set on an airliner.

Frankly, I don’t like what’s happening to air travel, either. As I may have mentioned a time or two, I’m very tall. And my legs are disproportionately long, even for my hulking size; I rock a 35-inch inseam in low heels. So as you can imagine, I have felt somewhat … unfriendly toward the current vogue for giving passengers a Hobson’s choice between two classes of seating: first and Ant Man.

I’m less fussed about checked-baggage charges, because I never liked waiting at baggage claim anyway. And I am not sad at all about the disappearance of sodden, tasteless, horrible meals that made the plane smell and clogged the aisles with the serving carts that delivered them.

But still, there’s the legroom. And the clot at the airport if you’re not in the “elite flier” lane.

So I am sympathetic to Meyerson’s plaint. And yet it also seems churlish to complain about inequality when this is hardly a matter of the huddled masses against the selfish plutocrats. You know who suffers most from these changes in airline policy? Upper-middle-class people with very good jobs.

Let’s recall that back in the good old days of flying, most people didn’t. They couldn’t; it was far too expensive. An airline flight was something you might do once in a very long while, for a special occasion like a honeymoon or a graduation.

As deregulation pushed prices down, more people flew. After the invention of travel websites, a lot more people flew — and based their flying decision entirely on price.

The result is what you see today: To stay price-competitive for tourists, airlines have ruthlessly slashed services so that the headline price they see on Expedia will be as low as possible. They’ve crammed as many seats as they can into the back section, where those tourists sit. And they’ve used increasingly sophisticated software to make sure that the planes are always as full as possible. Meanwhile, the airports haven’t really gotten much bigger, and the security screenings have gotten much more onerous, which means that unless you have elite status on your airline, you can count on waiting in an interminable queue just to be allowed to walk to your gate. The result is a miserable travel experience, but who really cares if you only take a flight every third August?

The answer is “business travelers,” and they care because a lot of employers are not as generous with the airline bookings as they used to be. Forget business class — now they won’t even let you book on your preferred airline if someone else is cheaper. Farewell, elite status; farewell, upgrades and expedited screening. Hello, fellow cattle, and would you mind getting your elbow out of my eye?

Like Meyerson, I find it all intensely irritating. But I can’t really work up a justifiable rage because too many people are being allowed to fly. After all, takeoff slots are limited, so if the planes had fewer seats, some folks have to stop flying — probably the least well-off, who give up on well-earned vacations or family visits so the business travelers can stretch their legs.

But what about first class? you ask. Why can’t they take out those seats? Well, have you looked at the price of a first-class ticket? The premium charged for first class is much more than proportional to the extra space they take up. Which means that folks buying first-class tickets are subsidizing those of us forced to sit back in the bleachers. If first class went away, again, who would lose out? The poorest fliers who can least afford the higher ticket prices.

Yes, this is somewhat complicated by the fact that many people in first class are elite fliers. But again, the elite fliers are less price-sensitive than the tourists — which means that they, too, subsidize those who shop only on price. You can think of planes as being filled with basically three kinds of people: coach fliers who only look at the price tag; elite fliers, who will pay extra for a seat on their preferred airline as long as the damage is not too bad; and first-class fliers, who apparently have some sort of money tree in the backyard. The latter two groups are the reason that the proletariat gets such good ticket prices. And because the elite fliers do generally have to spend some time in coach, they’re also the reason that the airlines don’t actually stack the rest of us like cordwood.

So while the conditions may be atrocious, it seems uncivil to complain too much. However bad things might be in the air, they’re not nearly as bad as being stuck on the ground because you can’t afford a ticket.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

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Megan McArdle

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist.