Life was once simpler. There was only one class for passengers on airline flights. Initially it was a very ‘adventurous’ class – open cockpits and high rates of fatalities.
It then evolved to become comparatively luxurious and ridiculously expensive, even extending to sleeper suites – thought of as a modern introduction but actually dating back to the flying boats of the late 1930s. But then, in the early 1960s, first class was dialed back in terms of the luxury features offered, although more recently, it is being selectively enhanced once more.
Our suggestion is that today’s business class is functionally equivalent to yesterday’s first class, and that today’s better types of premium economy are equivalent to earlier business class products. Alas, there’s no matching improvement in coach class, which is, by some measures, worse than it ever has been.
Let’s follow through the evolution of airline seats and services before identifying where the sweet spot for many of us might now be found.
Passengers Were an Airline Afterthought
We naturally think of airlines as being all about their passengers – or, perhaps, we think they should be. Without passengers, there’d be no airlines, right? Well, actually, wrong!
Although these days, passenger revenues make up more than 90% of most airlines’ income, the early airlines were created primarily to fly US mail around the country. Passengers (and other freight) were an afterthought, and all the money and profit potential revolved around mail.
In the first half of the 1920s, the largest airline in the world was operated by the US Postal Service. Mail carrying was gradually privatized in the second half of the 1920s, and airlines could make very much more money by transporting mail than passengers. Early planes also had limited capacity – one early plane could carry either 100 lbs of mail or a single (light) passenger, and as a result, passengers were unimportant and irrelevant.
Sometimes government subsidies for carrying the mail were so substantial that airlines would send mail to themselves to boost their earnings. An airline could pay 9c to post a letter, and then be given 18c by the government to fly the letter from one airport to another.
Here’s an interesting history of the evolution of airlines I wrote in 2010, focused mainly on the evolution of the regulatory structures which have been imposed on carriers, but touching on these topics.
Bigger and Better Planes Encourage Passengers Too
As airplane size and capacity grew, the airlines started to realize they would have difficulty filling all the flights they wished to operate with mail alone. So there was a slow shift of focus towards passengers. As airplanes evolved, and air travel shifted from being in an open cockpit with leather coat and goggles to being in an inside cabin, the concept of traveling by air became something of potentially broader appeal, and the airlines acted to make air travel more comfortable and more genteel.
This evolution happened within a ten year period. One could suggest that it started with the enclosed cabin of the Ford Trimotor in 1928 – there had been earlier planes with enclosed cabins, but the metal Trimotor marked a major change in airline and passenger expectations of the planes they flew (and a few remained in commercial service until the 1960s).
Other luxuries included the first airplane toilet (variously credited on the Handley Page H.P.42, which first flew in 1930, or the slightly earlier Handley Page W.8). Prior to that time, shorter flights made toilets a little needed luxury. We write in considerable detail about airline toilet related issues here and here.
Not quite such a luxury, leastways not in its early incarnations, was airline food. This was introduced very early on, with London-Paris flights operated by Handley Page Transport in 1919 generally being thought to be the first example of on-board food. This was, at the time, about a 2.5 hour flight (210 miles) on a plane that carried 5 – 10 passengers.
Another step forward was the introduction of flight attendants. The first airline to feature a flight attendant was United Airlines, in 1930.
A big boost in passenger comforts was offered by the first pressurized cabin, offered on the Boeing 307, in 1938. Until then passenger planes needed to cruise appreciably below 15,000 ft, meaning that rather than flying above the weather, they would fly through it. Pressurized cabins, in conjunction with supercharged engines and subsequently jets, allowed planes to fly much higher (and also faster and more economically with less air friction), giving improved travel experiences.
These technological improvements allowed the airlines to compete not just on speed but also on amenities and comfort with trains and passenger liners. There was a steady improvement in passenger experience, in a single class of service, although at the time it was not considered first class, it was just normal class.
The First Airline/Passenger Revolution
A silent revolution occurred in the mid 1930s, and emerged in full force after World War 2.
1936 saw the introduction of the extraordinary Douglas DC-3, an airplane still to be found operating in commercial service in some parts of the world today. There were many revolutionary features of this plane – longer range, faster speed, greater comfort, larger passenger capacity, and extraordinary robustness – but the hidden/obscured revolution brought about by this plane is that it was the first plane that could be commercially and profitably operated with only passengers, no freight or mail.
This was indeed a revolution. Passengers had shifted from an unnecessary irrelevance, to a less profitable addition to a flight, to now being center stage and an essential element of any airline’s future plans for growth and profit.
The second part of the DC-3 revolution happened after WW2. The plane had been built in comparatively enormous numbers by the measures of the age, during its production run from 1936-1942 – 607 of them were built, each costing what would be, in today’s money, about $1.4 million.
But during the war, the military built more than 10,000 of the equivalent C-47 transport plane, and after the war, started selling them off very inexpensively, allowing new airlines to spring up and existing airlines to add many more planes to their fleets at low cost, converting the C-47s into passenger planes.
As a result, air travel grew enormously, and started to be limited not so much by the number of planes, but by the number of passengers available. The airlines needed to grow their market, by reducing the cost of air travel.
Expanding the Market for Air Travel
The airlines expanded their markets by offering lower fares for less convenient routes with more stops along the way – these would be routes primarily operated for the mail contracts, but by planes with available space for passengers, although the routes or the schedules did not attract many passengers. So, for example, you could fly between two moderately far apart cities on a nonstop flight for a higher fare, or on a less convenient schedule and with one or two stops on the way for a lower fare – a revolutionary idea in its time, and one which has survived all the way through to the present day.
Eventually this concept evolved further so that passengers who were paying less were provided with a lower standard of seating and service. Which came first – lower fares or poorer quality seating and service? Hard to say!
This new service standard came to have its own name – ‘coach class’. The term may have evolved from one of two origins. Possibly it referred to the different types of train service – ‘coach class’ which was just plain seating in a ‘coach’ carriage, as compared to saloon or first or sleeper or Pullman class, which had lounges and private cabins. Or perhaps it dated even further back, to the concept of stage coaches which would make lots of stops on their route. You wanted the nonstop flight, you flew first class, you wanted the cheaper flight, you took the multi-stop coach class flight.
Adding another level of fare was not as simple as it sounds. Within the US, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), constituted in 1940 (evolving out of the earlier Bureau of Air Commerce that had been created in 1935), had to approve all fares and sought to establish standard fares on routes that all airlines were required to adhere to. And internationally, there were treaty restrictions limiting what fares airlines could charge, often requiring formal government approval by the governments of both countries for new fares. Even if this wasn’t needed, the airlines had their own pricing cartel, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), that acted ostensibly to ensure airlines all provided a consistent high standard of service and safety, and in reality, was primarily an anti-competitive club of airlines who acted in concert to ensure that none of their number would suddenly ‘break the rules’ and start selling tickets for less than the rest of them.
IATA finally acknowledged the potential for multi-class travel and allowed transatlantic tourist fares in summer of 1952 – a New York to London flight, one way, then cost either $395 in standard class or $270 in tourist class. This innovation – something we take for granted now – quickly spread around the world.
Domestically, while coach class fares were spreading, the airlines used the same seating on the planes for coach and first class until 1955 when TWA introduced two-cabin configurations on its Super Constellations. The images on this web page not only evoke a wave of nostalgia for the imagined ‘golden age’ of airline travel, but also clearly show the very different type of accommodation offered to coach and first class passengers in the mid 1950s.
The Second Air Travel Revolution
Air travel was becoming broadly accepted as a sensible and convenient way to travel for both moderate and long distances, but it remained expensive. Internationally, ocean liners, taking almost as many days as planes would take hours, were still the major carrier of travelers, and domestically, trains, buses, and private cars carried many people, even on longer journeys.
But after the many advances in aviation that came out of WW2, and during the 1950s, air travel became steadily more affordable, and started to not only skim the ‘top’ off the market, but also to displace and replace other forms of longer distance travel (ie 300+ mile journeys). Passenger trains and ocean liners started suffering from terminal declines in passenger numbers, while planes became more and more essential.
The first passenger jets appeared in 1953, and the last ocean liners were launched, probably already after the demise of the industry they were being built to serve, in 1962 and 1963.
The revolutionary rather than evolutionary change occurred at the end of the 1950s, with the appearance of the Boeing 707 and very similar DC-8. These planes carried about twice as many passengers, about 80% faster, and at lower overall cost per passenger mile flown, than the planes they were replacing. The huge increase in passenger carrying capacity was expanded further by the sales success of the new jet planes (four times as many 707s were sold as Super Constellations) and air travel finally started becoming something that the middle class could consider as well as the upper class.
Most significantly, from the perspective of this article, they marked a transition from the former fanciful and extravagant first class accommodations on planes to a new utilitarian layout in both coach and first classes. Compare the images of the Super Constellation interiors, with facing seating, lounges, and beds, with a typical layout for any 707/DC-8 and similar plane – orderly rows of seats either side of a center aisle – two seats either side in first class, three seats either side in coach class.
This marked the end of the brief ‘golden age’ of air travel, an era that was not revived for almost fifty years. The ‘jet age’ replaced the gorgeous ‘Connie’ and her predecessors with planes that now were primarily designed for the coach class passenger, and with less space and luxury for first class passengers, too. Soon, passengers in all classes would stop dressing up for a flight, and instead, start dressing down.
At the same time, the deluxe alternative modes of travel were disappearing. The Queen Mary ceased operations in 1967, the Queen Elizabeth in 1968 and the SS United States in 1969. The steady demise of passenger rail traffic and the railroads offering such services saw the formation of Amtrak in 1970, an organization that has never been profitable at any point since then.
The Third Revolution
The next revolution followed, a mere ten years later. The first part of this revolution was when the magnificent 747 lumbered into the skies for the first time in 1969 and entered commercial service the next year. This saw another doubling of passenger capacity per flight, and nearly all that growth in passengers was to be found in coach rather than first class.
The second part of this revolution was the end of airfare regulation in the US, something that happened at the same time as the 747’s appearance.
The airlines found themselves in a situation where they could handle more passengers than ever before, their costs were lower than ever before, and they were comparatively free to experiment with all sorts of new fare types and related service offerings. The earlier rigidity of the airline fare structure was abandoned, allowing airlines to have multiple different prices for their coach class fares, a concept that has carried forward from the 1970s through to the present day.
The airlines also recognized that as well as structuring different fares for advance purchase and with or without restrictions on changes and cancellations, they could also charge more for ‘better’ coach class seats than for ‘worse’ ones – another concept that has seen a recent renaissance.
Air travel quickly grew in volume. If the first revolution made air travel accessible to the upper class and the second revolution made it accessible to the middle class, the third revolution made it now open to everyone.
The focus of the airlines shifted to match their new demographic targets. They switched from developing a first class product to developing a middle class product to now developing a very utilitarian product. The new concept was ‘we’ll make up in volume what we miss out in margin’.
Bridging the Divide
So, by the mid/late 1970s, there was an increasing gap between first class and coach class on planes and in their respective fares. First class fares had trended upwards, while coach class fares had trended downward. Whereas when the two classes first appeared, there was only a 50% or less extra cost to upgrade from coach to first class, by the late 1970s, and in some cases, there was as much as a ten fold difference in fare.
One of the related benefits of the 747 was that there was enough room on the plane to experiment with new cabin configurations and layouts. Initially this had seen short lived experimentation with first class lounges and piano bars, similar in concept to the ‘golden age’ of travel in the 1930s and 1940s, but this did not last long. The airlines quickly decided there was more money to be made by adding another 20 or 30 coach class seats than in having open spaces for their small number of first class passengers.
But with flight loadings usually below 70% or thereabouts, those extra seats were more often empty than full. There were clearly opportunities to add more premium services – things that were better (and more expensive) than coach class, but not quite reaching first class – a market that was more or less saturated and adequately catered for. The airlines reasoned that it would be better to swap 30 empty unsold coach class seats for 15 ‘better’ seats that could/would be sold. They were sacrificing nothing and gaining a whole new product.
We are talking about the concept that became known as Business Class. El Al and British Airways were the first two airlines to announce plans for a new section of their planes (in 1977 and 1978) with this ‘mid grade’ class, but Qantas was the first to actually operate a plane with this third type of service/seating, in 1979.
Most airlines followed suit and for a decade or two, the concept of three cabin planes (on international long distance routes) was broadly accepted.
Another quiet change first started in 1979 – the dawn of frequent flier programs. Ostensibly to reward passengers for their business, they also provided new ways for airlines to identify their most valuable passengers, and to selectively reward such people. This had unexpected impacts in terms of seating styles and passenger behavior, which we discuss below.
Creating a New Divide
In 1995 the first part of a new two part revolution occurred. British Airways introduced a ‘lie-flat’ first class ‘sleeper seat’. The earlier first class seats were wide and had plenty of recline on the seat back, and leg rests that extended out the front of the seat, but were basically nothing more than airline versions of Lazyboy lounge chairs. They were typically spaced on a 55″ – 60″ seat pitch.
The new lie-flat seats required a broader seat pitch, around 75″ – 85″, so airlines couldn’t fit quite as many into the same space, but this was felt to be no huge loss. One of the possibly unexpected outcomes of the frequent flier programs was that increasingly, most people flying first class were flying on free frequent traveler tickets or had been given courtesy upgrades.
The frequent flier programs created a structure whereby airlines knew who to select for courtesy upgrades, making the millions of articles about ‘how to get a free upgrade’ increasingly obsolete. Prior to then, it is true that if you dressed well and acted obsequiously, you had a chance of being selected for an upgrade, but the airlines became more and more sophisticated, and realized that the possibility of preferential upgrades to the premium cabins could be used as a carrot to encourage their more frequent fliers back onto their flights. Plus many people were proving to prefer to redeem the miles they earned for premium cabin travel rather than for coach cabin travel.
So the first class cabin was still valuable, but reducing the number of seats by two or so didn’t mean much other than there being two fewer people getting free upgrades on each flight.
This new lie-flat seating made for a very clear distinction between the three cabins. First class now might offer lie-flat sleeper seats, business class would have seats with reasonable seat pitch and seat width and good service/food; and coach class would have narrow seats crammed tightly together. In the classic manner of ‘give your customers three choices’, this seemed perfect.
But, airlines are never content with perfection, and often seek to destroy it. Strangely, the airlines then proceeded to introduce similar lie-flat seating in their business classes.
While, from a traveler’s point of view, there’s little to complain about improvements to any class of seating on a flight (although I find lie-flat sleeper seats to often be appallingly uncomfortable, too narrow and too short – their promise is not matched by their reality), from an airline business point of view, an improved business class started to drain away some of the remaining ‘real’ passengers from first class – the ones who were actually buying tickets rather than enjoying upgrades and free mileage type tickets.
Sure, if you weren’t paying for the ticket, you’d aspire to flying in first class. But if it was your money at issue, very few people felt the need to go all the way to the very front of the plane any more.
The airlines responded inelegantly either by eliminating their first class cabins entirely, or by pushing the cost of business class travel up to a level much closer to first class. A trans-Atlantic flight might cost $1000 or less in coach class, but $5000-$7500 in business class and $7500-$9000 in first class.
So, whether the airlines retained their first class cabin or not, there was an increasing divide again between coach class and the next class up from it. The airlines reacted by creating another class of travel, but a less clearly defined one.
The Fourth – and now Fifth Class of Airline Travel
The first airline to experiment with a class of travel that was designed to fall between regular coach class and business class was EVA Air, in 1991. They termed it Evergreen Class – a puzzling name that gave no indication of what it actually was. Not long after that, Virgin Atlantic Airways introduced their Premium Economy cabin, although this wasn’t really a fourth class of service for Virgin, because they had never offered first class. When major airlines that already had three classes started adding a premium economy type cabin as well – for example, British Airways and their ‘World Traveler Plus’, the concept of a fourth class of service became mainstream.
Economy Plus has never been a clearly defined standard – there’s not even a universal name. Economy Plus? Premium Economy? Or maybe something entirely different. The vagueness in name was matched with a similar imprecision in terms of what specific features are better than coach class. Does it offer separate checkin lines? Early boarding? Are the seats wider or just more generously pitched? Is the food regular coach class food or is it better? Do you get extra frequent flier mile credits for flying premium economy? Do you have extra baggage allowances? Are there better in flight entertainment options?
In some cases, with some airlines, some of these questions are answered yes and others no; in other cases, with other airlines, there is a different set of inclusions and exclusions. Considerable pricing differences also exist.
But, in general terms, a moderately ‘good’ premium economy class seat these days can be thought of as having perhaps a 38″ or thereabouts seat pitch, and an extra inch or two of seat width (18″ – 19″ wide), and some of the other features included too.
Now – here’s the thing. What I’ve just described is very similar to the original types of business class seats, which were, as best I recall, 19″ or thereabouts wide and commonly with a 39″ seat pitch.
Today’s premium economy seat is very similar to the early versions of business class.
But wait – there’s more. The airlines are rediscovering one of their early strategies, abandoned decades ago, but now resurfacing. Charging extra for ‘better’ coach class seats – maybe nothing ‘better’ that simply being closer to the front of the plane, maybe with an extra inch or two of seat pitch, and probably not middle seats. Again with a very amorphous product concept and similarly imprecise name, but this type of ‘slightly better than normal coach but still coach’ class is also becoming more prevalent. Sometimes it is nothing more than simply an exit row seat, but on other occasions there are other inclusions as well.
Not all airlines offer all five types of seating/service on their long haul flights, but many have four and most now have three.
A Sixth Class?
Some airlines are now enhancing their first class product even further, by introducing a super-first class product, with miniature ‘suites’, half-high partitioning for privacy, on-board showers, and even ‘butlers’ rather than flight attendants.
This seems unlikely to become commonplace on most airlines, probably being restricted to a few of the middle Eastern carriers, especially those operating the enormous A380 planes.
Etihad has pursued this concept to perhaps its (il)logical conclusion with their extraordinary three room, two level ‘residences’ on their new A380 planes. Although very expensive, they are apparently proving very popular with high end passengers.
At the opposite end of the scale, some airlines are now introducing a ‘worse than standard coach’ type class. They might offer coach class with or without any checked bag allowance, with or without any type of included food or drink, with or without advance seat selection, and with or without frequent flier credit. Is this another class of service, or merely just another way to sell the same thing a different way?
Playing the Accounting Game
Companies have simultaneously become more sophisticated in their ability to monitor and track employee travel spending, and also less generous in the travel budgets and policies they have in place.
This was another factor in killing off first class. Companies told their employees ‘no more first class – you can travel in business class, but not first class’. Initially all a company could do to ensure compliance with that policy was to look at copies of tickets and see if they said ‘First class’ on them, and, at a slightly more sophisticated level, see what class of service the fare was booked in – P and F being common indicators for first class fares.
So the airlines started playing games with the corporate cost managers. They came up with ‘free upgrades to first class’ that involved booking business class tickets, which allowed travelers to book an allowable business class fare and fly in the forbidden first class cabin ‘for no more money’. Some would also have ‘free upgrades to business class’ for business travelers only allowed to fly in coach class.
Some airlines simply renamed their first class cabin as ‘business class’ or gave it a meaningless name like ‘Business First’ to try and be all things to all people – the accountants could pretend it was business class and the travelers could pretend it was first class (or possibly vice versa!).
All Cabins Improve in Some Respects
While it is easy to criticize many aspects of modern day flying, and it is definitely true in coach class that the airlines put more seats in per row and more rows per cabin, there are also some remarkable improvements in the overall travel experience.
These improvements are almost entirely to do with the in-flight entertainment. The first movie was shown on a plane as part of a sightseeing tour around Chicago in 1921, and the first movie on a regular passenger flight was in 1925. But these were oddities, in-flight movies only became commonplace in 1963 with the deployment of 16mm film movies and the invention of pneumatic sound driven earphones (the early ‘stethoscope type’ headphones if you remember them).
In 1979 some airlines started to replace the pneumatic headphones with regular electrical headphones, initially in their premium cabins and slowly, subsequently, in coach class too. Delta was the last airline to still use pneumatic headphones, finally abandoning them in 2003.
Some airlines now even offer noise cancelling headphones in premium cabins, but generally they are of very poor quality. An exception is Lufthansa that offers Bose noise cancelling headphones.
In the mid 1980s, individual video players started appearing – initially in the form of video cassette players in premium cabins. You’d have a list of available video cassettes and request the ones you wanted to watch, and sometimes would have to wait for other passengers to finish watching the movie first. Some types of players were unreliable and loved to ‘chew up’ the video cassettes.
Instead of one movie on central large video projectors that displayed the movie to the entire cabin (and some airlines – notably Aeroflot – would play the sound track over the public address system, whether you wished to watch/listen to the movie or not!) airlines started to offer half a dozen or more channels of video at individual seat players. But the movies all started at the same time, and if you wanted to watch a movie, you’d potentially have to wait two hours until it next restarted.
Now of course, most airlines offer video on demand. We can choose the programs we want to watch, start them, pause them, and stop them as we wish, and might have anywhere from several dozen to several hundred or even a thousand different programs to choose from. Plus the video screens have massively improved too.
The first seatback video screens measured a mere 2.7″ (on Northwest Airlines in 1988), and were low/standard definition. Today, even coach class screens are usually 7″ or larger, while business and first class screens can grow to 15″ or more, and usually all types of screens in all cabins are high definition.
A related improvement has been in the field of at-seat power. Until relatively recently, there was no power to be had at seats. Then some airlines started introducing ‘universal’ power outlets – universal in the sense that you then had to buy an expensive power adapter that would allow you to operate your laptop from the seat power outlet. Whenever I tried to use those, the power my laptop required was invariably too much for the seat power circuit, and either the laptop would refuse to charge, or the power outlet’s circuit breaker would trip.
More recently, real 110/220v power outlets started to appear in the premium cabins at seats, and now even in some coach class cabins, too. The new thing is to also provide USB power outlets, but in a manner reminiscent of the earlier ‘universal’ power outlets, most airline USB power outlets seem to be limited to the original and now inadequate 0.5A standard, which is too little to charge most tablets.
And there has been an evolution in in-flight communications. Remember the Airphones mounted in the seatbacks in front of us? Fiendishly expensive per minute, but sometimes fun to use in the days before cell phones, to call to someone on the ground and impress them with where you were calling from.
They were so expensive that no-one used them. But now their capability is being replaced by in-flight Wi-Fi and inflight phone service connectivity, and the initial limitations on in-flight Wi-Fi are being replaced by truly fast and flexible service.
On the other hand, if you don’t want to work and do want to sleep, don’t go looking for a blanket or pillow in coach class any more. They no longer exist on most planes – to ‘save weight’, if you can believe it!
The New Value Spot
For many of us, coach class has become worse and worse – all the more so because while their seats have gotten smaller and smaller, we have done the opposite and become larger and larger.
Business class, while often much less expensive in terms of multiples of the coach class fare than it once was, is still an enormous amount extra to pay, particularly if expressed in terms of ‘dollars per hour of travel’ (commonly an extra $100 or $200 or even more per hour flown). There’s almost nothing legal or illegal the airlines could offer to justify that type of expense.
The extra thousands of dollars more that first class typically costs, compared to already over-priced business class, brings very little of value these days, particularly now that both classes offer lie-flat sleeper bed/seats. Sure, first class gives you an extra choice of two on the wine menu, and an extra course on the food menu, and maybe one or two more hot towels during the flight, and an extra inch or two on the movie monitor, and sometimes some extra perks prior to and after the flight – a slightly more ‘exclusive’ lounge prior to boarding, maybe limo transfers too.
But most of us find such added features unnecessary rather than essential, and definitely not worth paying thousands of dollars more to enjoy. If we needed such things, we could buy many of them separately for much less money. Want a bigger screen monitor? Buy an iPad. Want a limo transfer? Pay $100 directly, not $1000 extra on the air fare. Want a vintage year champagne? Buy a dozen bottles at your destination and celebrate having still saved substantially over the effective cost for a glass or two on board. And so on.
But premium economy has improved, and might be available for $25 – $50/hour, and while that is still an appreciable extra expense (a 10 hour trans-Atlantic flight might cost an extra $1000 roundtrip to upgrade to premium economy) the difference is something that most people can really feel and benefit from.
Remember though that premium economy varies widely in cost and quality/features included. It pays to shop around. The second part of this article series will summarize the features of the major airlines’ premium economy products so you can better know where to focus your comparisons.