United rolled out Basic Economy fares today, which you already know because you come here for my hot takes, not to read breaking news. I’m not going to summarize the non-perks, but I do think it would be neat if airlines started thinking a little more creatively about how to offer different passenger experiences across a range of price points. To wit: I’d like to share with you a comic by Canadian cartoonist Nick Maandag. (I couldn’t find it published anywhere online, so I’m posting a photo of the original artwork that my friend Chris shot.)
I know taste in humor is a personal matter, but this is objectively hilarious, so I hope you laughed. However, I do think it’s a worthwhile thought experiment to think about what aspects of an airline’s premium experience are completely unnecessary and exist only to justify the price tag.
For me, pretty much everything related to the “soft product” is irrelevant. When I read trip reports, I pore over the photos of the cabin and the seat and then scroll really quickly through the food, since I don’t really give a shit about the meals. For one, the special vegan meal is going to be terrible no matter what, but I also have a hunch that – with a few notable middle eastern exceptions – premium airline food is good because it isn’t economy food (just like how most lounges aren’t that nice until you compare them with overcrowded terminals and gate seating areas).
The same goes for service – I love the idea of a “do not disturb” button like on United’s new Polaris seat, because I don’t want to talk to anyone. If I need some water, I’ll hopefully grab it from the walk-up bar. On my last flight coming home from Hawaii, the flight attendant came through the cabin and asked me if I needed anything, and, with my social awkwardness kicking in right on cue, I just looked back at her confused why she was talking to me. It was an uncomfortable exchange (due entirely to me being too shy to go out in public), but it reminded me why the ideal service concept for me is just to leave me alone. It’s not quite farting in my face every thirty minutes, but it’ll do.
Also, I don’t need a flat bed. It’s nice, but the couple times I’ve had a flat bed seat, I couldn’t sleep at all and I mostly used it in recliner mode anyway. (Sleeping on planes, like the fawning over attentive service, is just something I don’t get. Planes are loud, and they move around even when it’s smooth outside. They smell weird, people are always milling around, and even the widest seats are still these comparatively tiny planks in bed mode. How do people just conk out for hours at a time? It’s such an inhospitable environment for sleep! It’s a total mystery to me.)
I think what I’m describing is called Premium Economy (or maybe “Club World”). However, the few times I’ve costed out premium economy, it has been a terrible value in both dollars in miles. Air France premium economy is usually way more expensive than economy, and it’s almost twice the cost in miles. However, business class is only 12,500 miles more than premium economy for a one-way transatlantic flight, so for that small amount of miles I’d rather get the extra space and comfort in business.
I don’t really know where I’m going with this. If I had my own airline (which I’d call “Royal Jordanian”), I’d create two identical business class cabins, where one offered the full premium experience and the other offered only the seat with the same shitty buy-on-board food as economy and indifferent service (and no stupid amenity kit, blanket, etc) for 40% less. I’m sure I’d go out of business right away, but it would be a good experiment to see how many people were willing to pay a premium for a nice “soft product,” or if that cabin went out empty every flight because people just wanted a comfy seat. I suspect that’s what would happen, which suggests that the soft product is actually the least expensive part of the business class fare, and the airlines maximize profit margin by using meaningless soft product enhancements to justify the insanely high prices. More power to them, I guess, but as miles devalue past the point where I can use them for business class, I’m going to get more and more annoyed at how all the dumb soft product stuff is contributing to pricing business class out of my range.