I wrote, last week, at my dismay at being refused access to the business class cabin on a 10 hour Fiji Airways flight, even though I was holding a business class ticket. For sure, that’s an extreme example of being overly protective about the premium cabins, but some airlines seem to have a love/hate relationship with their premium cabins, their passengers, and how they mix and match the two.
Historically, airlines seldom upgraded passengers from one cabin to another, for two reasons.
First, they did not have the computerized tracking systems they now have, so when passengers turned up at the gate, the airline neither knew the type of fare and price each person paid for their ticket, nor did they know if the person was a very frequent flier and deserving of extra consideration or not. It was hard to know who deserved upgrades and who didn’t. This was the era where schmoozing gate agents could sometimes get you an otherwise undeserved upgrade.
Secondly, airlines – and the world in general – was more snobbish, and airlines would snootily boast ‘we protect the integrity of our first class cabin’ – the implied thought being that if they were to upgrade coach class passengers, they would be letting ‘inappropriate’ people into the first class cabin (think back to when people would dress up for a flight) and the people who had paid full price for their first class tickets would be horrified at the introduction of ‘lower class’ people. A related thought was that the people who paid full price would be outraged at seeing other people admitted to the cabin for less than full fare.
The net result, which many of us may have experienced, was sometimes being the only person in an entire first class cabin, but with the rear of the plane crammed full of people.
That’s a scenario that does no-one any good. If the airline moved 12 or however many people from coach to first class, that could potentially directly please 36 people – notionally each of the 12 people might have been in a middle seat and now the people on either side have spare space, so they are pleased, and of course the 12 people upgraded are beyond pleased. There is also more space in the overheads due to the lower passenger density, less pressure on the toilets, and every which way, a lighter load in coach class makes improvements to just about everyone in the coach class section of the plane.
On the other hand, there’s much less sense of crowding in first class and (since its introduction) business class, so filling up the premium cabins doesn’t notably detract from the experience of premium passengers, while improving the lot of all coach class passengers.
These days airlines know more about our travel habits than we do ourselves, and they know to the last penny exactly how much we paid for our tickets, giving them the ability to create what passes for some type of fair system for prioritizing access to upgrades, and the whole ‘dressing for a flight’ thing only applies in one remaining situation – if you are an airline employee traveling on a free ticket in a premium cabin, the airline typically still insists you dress up for the flight. Amusingly, this means that rather than blending in, as was the original requirement for this dress code, airline employees on free tickets now conspicuously stand out!
The other thing that has changed is that people now understand that the person seated next to them on any given flight might have paid twice as much or half as much for their ticket. Even the premium cabins now have multiple fare levels available. Everyone is free to either guarantee their first class seat by buying a first class fare, or to take their chance by spending less on a ticket and hoping they have the frequent flier ‘horsepower’ to pull them forward.
In theory, airlines should also realize, now, that while the incremental cost of having someone seated in first rather than coach class is trivial (maybe $5 more for food and beverage, a dollar for an amenity kit, and a dollar more for accelerated wear and tear on the seat and its fittings) the benefit in terms of customer goodwill is enormous. Most airlines now consciously fill their premium cabins.
Furthermore, some airlines have instituted various types of ‘pay to upgrade’ programs, so as to get as much extra money as possible from each empty premium cabin seat. Needless to say, these ‘pay to upgrade’ programs co-exist uneasily with the free/courtesy upgrades offered to elite level frequent fliers, particularly the programs that allow elite fliers to confirm their upgrades one, two, three or even more days in advance.
But a few ‘hold out’ airlines still begrudge access to their premium cabins to anyone other than passengers paying the applicable full fare. As observed above, this is a lose/lose/lose proposition. Potential upgradees definitely lose out, everyone else in coach class also loses out, and the airline too loses out, either from some incremental upgrade-fee type revenue or from the massive loyalty boost a free upgrade would give them from the people so upgraded.
So, here’s an interesting test. As a quick rule of thumb, any time you are on a flight in a full premium cabin, you know the airline is well-managed. But if there’s even one empty seat in the cabin, you know the airline is shooting itself in the foot.
With that fair measuring stick, how to describe the management quality of Fiji Airlines and the almost half empty business class cabin on the flight from Auckland to Fiji, and the presumed one-third empty cabin for the long 10 hour flight from Fiji on to Los Angeles (both flights suffering from densely packed coach class cabins). Yes, they deserve a full management fail.