There’s a good debate in the comments thread of a recent View From the Wing post on Christopher Elliott’s claim that economy passengers are subsidizing the luxuriant lifestyles of first class passengers. The argument is that by giving up comfort (more seats per row, less legroom) and being roped into very restrictive ticketing policies, airlines get more from each economy passenger while giving them less, and then in turn give first class passengers more while charging them the same amount as always. I thought, “hmm, I have some strong opinions about this, so instead of commenting on a well-trafficked blog post, why don’t I write my response on my own blog that has no readers, thus sidestepping any debate or criticism entirely?” So here I go.
Gary Leff’s response is just about 100% spot on, in my opinion. Some of the perks Elliott mentions are actually available to anyone for a nominal fee (like lounge access), while others are reserved only for the comparatively tiny number of members who fly hundreds of thousands of miles a year on a given airline and, to be honest, have probably earned their perks for funneling more money to an airline in a month than most leisure travelers will in a lifetime. It isn’t a classist system any more than any other system set up to recognize the most loyal customers is a classist system. No one got mad at Subway for offering free subs to customers who filled up a Sub Club card on the backs of all the suckers paying full-price for sandwiches. You don’t see Elliott out there protesting how elitist Costco is by reserving the best deals for their paid members while the rest of us subsidize those deals by buying merchandise full-price, thus enabling manufacturers to sell to Costco at a poor margin.
Second, Elliott’s post is part of the convenient “blame the airline” narrative that I find totally unproductive. There are times when airlines are horrible (see my recent posts on American Airlines, for instance), and times when they actively do wrong by their customers (such as when United left people in military barracks in remote northern Canada for hours without any information). But that’s not what Elliott is talking about – he’s talking about a few things that have been bugaboos of people in his position FOR YEARS. Shrinking seats. Vanishing legroom. And what’s the deal with airplane food?
Has there been any data on how average pitch has shrunk over the past years? I honestly can’t remember there being more legroom on planes when I was in high school (nearly 20 years ago) than there is now, but apparently airlines are keeping knee surgeons in business by crunching you in horrible, uncomfortable positions over the past few years. I can’t really argue against seats shrinking width, since it’s true that airlines are moving to 10-across 777s when they used to be 9-across, and then using that new normal seat width to fit 9-across in a 787, and so on. However, narrow-body jets are 6-across and aren’t going to shrink significantly, because they can’t. What they can do is fit in more seats using slim-line seating, which gives Elliott a pretty major rage boner. The thing is, slimline seats reduce the actual depth of the seat so that pitch stays the same while the airlines cram in that extra row. Has Elliott seriously flown on a plane with slimline seats and longed for the days of the old-style seats? I’m guessing not, because slimline seats are more comfortable and more supportive than old-style seats with worn out padding. (I’d much rather fly one of United’s new A320s than any of their legacy planes.) IT makes for a good narrative to imagine airlines wedging in more seats simply by force of will, but they aren’t doing this in practice. Plus, the airline with the worst pitch in the industry is Spirit, and they don’t even have a premium cabin!
Which brings me to Elliott’s patently absurd claim that higher-density economy cabins fund the first class cabin. Some commenters on VFTW seem to think that the high profitability of ULCCs plus the failure of all-business class airlines proves that economy is inherently more profitable than premium. What this leaves out, however, is any notion of branding or marketing, and I don’t think airlines spend millions on marketing every year just for the fun of it. Southwest, Spirit, Frontier, and all the other LCCs have made no-frills, low-cost service the cornerstone of their brands, so it wouldn’t make sense for them to start offering first class. No one files those airlines to get good service or in-flight amenities, so it would be like when McDonald’s wanted to take on the fast casual dining market and introduced the Arch Deluxe – remember that sandwich? It wasn’t profitable.
Ultimately, first class cabins are probably very profitable, given that they take up the space of 6 economy seats and cost 10x as much, meaning it wouldn’t take that many flights to recoup the additional expense of the seat itself. However, there’s only so much high-net-worth demand for these seats, which is why you don’t see planes full of them. Which brings me to the crux of why Elliott’s argument is so full of shit: DEMAND. Sure, some people have no choice whether or not to fly, and so there will always be a constant stream of demand for basic economy seats. However, as we saw in the recession, people may choose to spend their vacation at home, or on a road trip, or on a train, or on something that doesn’t involve flying economy. And since planes are pretty much all full all the time, economy class flyers are sending a very clear message to airlines that the airlines can do whatever they want to economy flyers and they’ll still fill the seats. If you truly want to send a message to the airlines, the answer isn’t to paint them as villains and stomp your feet about how much better they’re treating first class passengers, it’s to boycott them. Then, the in-flight product will improve, and prices will stay the same. Notice that Elliott doesn’t tell anyone to stop flying, though – he wants people to fly, to hate it, and to send him emails about how much they hate it… that way, he has data points about how awful the airlines are that he can use for his next article that’s just as full of shit as this one. Rinse, repeat.
I think any reasonable person would conclude that airlines aren’t using the extra revenue from economy passengers to subsidize first class passengers. Instead, they’re using the revenue from all passengers to deliver value to their shareholders, because they’re publicly traded companies that are trying to maximize profit across all products and not evil feudal lords who get off on torturing the lower class. And if it’s true that economy flyers have to suffer so that rich people can take mid-air showers, why does Emirates economy have industry-leading seat pitch? And why is the in-flight entertainment so good? And the food? I thought those opulent suites were supposed to come at the cost of inhumanely mashing economy class passengers into the plane.
The real motivation in the shit Elliott writes is to advance the narrative that everyone is against him and the poor, otherwise defenseless people he valiantly defends. I don’t see it as class warfare, as some have suggested. Instead, Elliott is Don Quixote, propping up the evil airlines (and the evil credit card companies, and whoever else he fixates on) in order to give himself something to defend against. If he had even a somewhat reasonable take on the relative evilness on airline companies, he’d have much less reason to exist, and his histrionics would certainly be less publication-friendly.
Finally, I think it’s important to note that one of the things I love about the points/miles game is that there are so few ways for people of average means to get ahead of these giant corporations. Banks nickel and dime you with fees, credit cards include usurious interest rates, airlines charge you for every last little thing. However, if you’re clever, you can roll out points and miles like a red carpet that gives you access to all kinds of value that would otherwise be beyond your means. So you can either take your principled, quixotic stand against corporate monoliths, or you can work within the system to gain access to all the things Elliott begrudges the first class passengers on the plane. Which is a more enjoyable way to go through life?