The Strange Economics Of First Class

The Hartford Courant has an article about the odd economics of flying first class&mdash’where a ticket can cost $14,000 for a simple flight from New York to London. Why are people (or businesses) willing to pay that much money for a bit more comfort? It’s silly…if you stop to think about it.

How much would you pay to enjoy six hours away from your fellow humans, in a chair that reclines? $1,500 an hour – or even more? And if someone invited you to spend $9,000 to pass a long afternoon in a fairly cramped lounge, munching peanuts and reading airline magazines, would you accept? How desperate are you to have access to 15 movies you never would pay to see in a theater, instead of 11?

I often think that the airline executive who came up with the idea of business class should get his name on an endowed chair at the Harvard Business School – and his face on a most-wanted poster.

We’ve often wondered if airlines go out of their way to make the conditions in coach as horrible as possible…to make sure the First Class fliers think they’re getting their money’s worth. First and Business class seats are where airlines make the most money, does it pay for them to keep us cheapskates miserable…as an example to the others?

Look at those figures again. Who in her right mind would pay $9,000 for six hours – or eight, if you include time in the airport – of slightly elevated comfort? Someone who is not paying for her own travel, perhaps, and longs to be a little closer to those billionaires and movie stars who dropped the full $14,000 to be a few extra feet away from the riff-raff.

On the ground, a traveler might expect to pay $100 to get 24 hours of extra comfort in a hotel’s upgraded suite or an executive floor room. But as soon as we take to the skies – and become a kind of captive audience – we will pay $9,000 for a little more of the food that we gladly would have much less of.

At least we weren’t alone in thinking these things as we sipped on our tiny cup of mostly-ice-and-a-little-Coca-Cola and stared at our bruised knees. (We were blessed with the exact wrong type of body for air travel—long legs the hit the seat in front of us and no torso—meaning that the so-called “neck rest” hits us squarely in the back on the head, forcing us into the fetal position for most of the ride. But we’re not bitter or anything.) Even so, $14,000 for a “comfy” seat and better reheated food? Our inner tightwad will never, ever understand. We just rub our knees, smile and remember the Mayflower. At least the trip won’t take 3 months.


One Small Step Up In Comfort, One Giant Leap In Price
[Hartford Courant]
(Photo: Alex-s)

Comments

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  1. dip_cone says:

    It’s the same as any exclusive item, the price jumps astronomically when you start eating at high end restaurants too. The difference here is you’re contained in an aerodynamic tube, so there’s only so much space to be had.

  2. jamesdenver says:

    I don’t think many people actually pay the 4-5k fare that comes with first class. Many of these are high mileage business travelers who use miles for upgrades. Or some airlines do first class upgrades at the gate for far less money.

  3. bnet41 says:

    In all seriousness, how many travelers actually pay for first class outside of famous people?

    Most up there in business and first class seem to be upgrades for either miles or compensation. I sat in first class once when a flight got canceled on me. It was awesome, but not worth what that ticket would have been originally.

    My friend recently was offered a upgrade to business for $250 for a 16 hour flight to China. I would have taken that, as that would be reasonable. He did not, but the flight was fairly empty anyways.

  4. ThyGuy says:

    If I had the money, I would gladly pay this much to get away from the crying babies and the rest of the idiocy in the coach area. You know the mothers of the brats and babies could never afford the area you’re about to enter. Knowing this is worth all the money in the world.

  5. Jasmo says:

    Passing through the first class cabin on the way to coach is one of the few times when I try to fart in public.

  6. 44 in a Row says:

    You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Except I fly first/business pretty frequently (on upgrades), and I’ve definitely been seated near crying babies.

  7. mdkiff says:

    Unfortunately, First Class doesn’t guarantee that you avoid crying kids. I just flew business/first class to and from Peru, and both ways there were kids there with their parents. Talk about a waste of money – or even miles…

  8. foghat81 says:

    @Jasmo: LOL

    I’ve SERIOUSLY considered the extra cash for a trip to India (there’s some non-stop 15/16 hr flights to really settle in on)

    Ultimately, I can’t bring myself to spend so much more for, essentially, one night’s sleep.

  9. chili_dog says:

    Wow, thats some serious class envy up there in Hartford.

    It begins with the inequity of prices. Those paying thousands for the upper deck of the jet effectively set up a gated community in the air, in which people from other classes are not even allowed to visit their restrooms.

    I guess using the forward lavatory is a big deal to Pico Iyer.

  10. Tallanvor says:

    Why does this surprise people? It’s simply supply and demand. As long as people are willing to pay those prices, the airlines will charge them.

    And yes, if I could afford it, I probably would fly first class to avoid the pain that is coach these days.

  11. dbeahn says:

    Business class also means FEWER coach class seats – I’ve been on several business trips where I’ve been seated in Business or First class because there were no more coach class seats available, and the trip I needed to make couldn’t be postponed enough days to get me on a flight in Coach…

  12. lawnmowerdeth says:

    Back before TWA went bankrupt, if you were simply a member of their frequent flyer program, you could upgrade to an empty first class seat for $50 to $75. Now THAT was definitely worth it.

  13. lordkenyon says:

    Didn’t the Concorde only cost around $10k per ticket when it was running? Seems a bit better deal considering it was all first class.

    When you’re pushing that amount per ticket, I’d start looking at chartering a flight or NetJets (timeshare).


    As an aside, I’ve flown first class many times for only $25-50 or even free if you’re just nice to the desk agent.

  14. Thrust says:

    Why I like Canada: Reason 13

    WESTJET.

    There is no class, it’s all one class. There is no difference in ticket price for any seat on the plane. It’s all a case of timing. First person to check in gets first pick of seats. The very first row often has a little more legroom, and early people get their pick of Window/Aisle seats. I for one can ONLY fly when I’m in the middle (lenghtwise) of the plane. Too far foreward or back and I wig out. Don’t ask.

    Also with Westjet, cute young stewardesses who know how to crack a pun over the intercom. Their record for being on time / early is the highest in north america, a whole new fleet was just purchased with TVs on each chairback (a whole dollar for headphones, normal walkman ones work WITHOUT needing adaptors so you can just bring yer own). And best of all, they now fly pretty much everywhere in canada, and now into the US. (even saw something about Hawaii flights now. ALOHA)

    I’ve flown exclusively westjet since they started in (i think it was) ’93.

  15. itsbetteronamac says:

    I am sorry but not all first classes are the same. For instance Emirates will fly you practically anywhere in the world with: 3 three-course meals, a selection of over 500 movies, your own personal suite, your own unlimited minibar, and world-class lounges with free drinks, all for around $7,000.

    Now in my mind that’s not all the bad of a price for what you get. Not to mention airlines have to pay for all their news planes somehow. Lets not forget new wide-body jets cost around $200million+.

    So while you may be getting f***** over when flying a US airlines’ first class, it’s not always true while flying a “better” airline.

  16. @ThyGuy: “You know the mothers of the brats and babies could never afford the area you’re about to enter.”

    But airlines upgrade mothers with infants in arms!

  17. BillyMumphry says:

    two words: “free” booze

  18. Greeper says:

    Many large companies (mine included) have a rule that is the flight is longer then 6 hours you can upgrade to business. (Longer than 10 to first, though I’ve never noticed a marked difference). Almost always I’ve found first to be people who didn’t pay their own way, frequent flier milegae users, people who got a good deal (or an upgrade), and occasionally, people with too much money. $9k is ridiculous for a flight to Europe for sure. I’m usually willing to pay 50% more for business for flights more than 6 hours (when I’m paying). I really do think the seats are way more comfortable, especially if you get full oe almost recline (most flights to Hawaii, Europe, Asia).

  19. crnk says:

    totally flawed article.
    they try to compare based on the extremes. If you want the truth, that 14k BA ticket needs to be compared to a FULL FARE coach ticket, since they would then both be refundable. FYI, CO looks to be selling seats for tomorrow in Y class for a little north of 3k RT. In addition, sometimes there are first class sales and the coach/first discount prices are even closer….800/1700 to europe…..

    Next on the consumerist…..written by the hartford courant…..”Test drives….2002 ford focus vs 2008 Ferrari FXX”

  20. crnk says:

    @BillyMumphry:
    Several carriers do this….I’ve flown 2 this year already
    United flights To/From/In Asia
    COPA

  21. JustAGuy2 says:

    Also, it’s worth noting that a lot of the people in the premium cabins aren’t paying those high fares. My company has negotiated rates for transatlantic biz and 1st travel that are about 60% off the full list price. Then again, we probably buy 50 seats a day each way across the pond.

  22. Alan Thomas says:

    Individuals *pay* full fare for first class ?!?! It just goes to prove how stupid some people are. I can see (1) businesses buying some, (2) celebrities buying some [for "privacy"] and (3) frequent flyers and others being awarded them.

    And thanks for the unkind comment about mothers with crying babies. Earlier this year my family of 3 + one babe in arms were travelling from Mexico to the U.S. I was eligible for 1 free upgrade to first class, so I gave them to my wife, with the baby. She was treated like sh*t by the first class passengers and ended up coming back to me in tears; I kept the baby for the rest of the flight. FWIW, the people in coach class were great with the baby. I still think I got the better deal than her having to put up with that snotty treatment.

  23. AnnieGetYourFun says:

    Canada annoys the shit out of me, but I have to admit that WestJet is freaking awesome. It’s MUCH cheaper than flying the major US airlines. The flight attendants are fun and funny. As someone with serious flight anxiety, it’s nice to get a few giggles out of an otherwise nerve-wracking experience.

  24. madktdisease says:

    @itsbetteronamac: all that stuff, plus a chauffered ride to the airport and back. damn, it must feel good to be a gangsta.

  25. mzito says:

    Yeah, there’s a lot of unfair comments in the article that simply dont’ apply to the real world. As I look right now, at the peak travel season for flying to London, the cost for a two day trip to London in business class is $4k if I travel on a traditional airline on a less than 7-day advance fare, and if I want to fly one of the new all business class carriers, like MaxJet, I can do it for $2k. Considering that coach tickets are running $1k-1400, my extra $600 sounds like a decent deal. (Also don’t forget there’s consolidators that typically cost 30-50% off the published biz and first rates, and that a lot of corporations have built-in travel discounts).

    Traveling in first or business class has a bunch of advantages over most coach tickets that are extremely useful for business travelers:
    - Flexible tickets – oh, a meeting got rescheduled for the next day? No problem, just move the ticket back. Alternately, last day got canceled? Go home early, see your family, save money on hotel, etc.
    - Much more comfortable seat – a lot of international travel involves overnight, and the ability to sleep allows you (or me, at least in my experience) to go straight from the airport to meetings
    - Better amenities – many of the airlines have showers and clothes pressing services on arrival in major international destinations, which also enables you to be refreshed when you have to go straight to that 9am meeting
    - Better treatment during irregular operations – when you spend tons of time in the air (I’m currently at over a week of this year spent in-flight, and this has been a slow travel year for me), and travel goes wrong for you, typically things are taken care of more smoothly

    Note that all of these things only apply to international business/first class – I personally never saw the huge perks of domestic first class over an exit row seat, but international is a whole other game. In fact, most of the people who say, “Oh, First class is not so special”, I’m willing to bet are talking about domestic F.

    It’s all about the business being conducted – if someone’s flying halfway around the world for business worth, say, $200,000 to their company, doesn’t it make sense to pay $10k instead of $3k to help them be refreshed, relaxed, and on their game when they get there, instead of exhausted, sore, and stressed?

  26. LisaLives says:

    I swore off coach for life after a hellish flight to London on British Airways a couple of years ago.

    I either use miles to upgrade or purchase a first class ticket, but I plan early and shop around and don’t pay anywhere near 14K for a ticket.

    When I fly domestically coast-to-coast I can usually find a first class fare for $1200 or so.

    And yeah, it’s completely worth it to me to have legroom, my own armrest, wine and dinner. And if I have any doubts, I can just peek back through the curtains at some poor slob stuck in a middle seat between two morbidly obese passengers and I breathe a sigh of relief. Then I ask for another glass of wine.

  27. abz_zeus says:

    As to Concorde the reason people paid that was time: it was possible to do London New York and back in a day.

    As to First/Business Class, there are reasons for this, one you are often expected to work once you arrive and depending on the direction this could mean an effective 36hr+ work day, you have to get some sleep.

    BA has flat beds you get a nights sleep. Pure and simple. It’s that or pay the person to sleep once they arrive

  28. myrall says:

    I can’t say it enough – if you’re nice to the ticketing and/or gate agent, they’ll often go waaaaay out of their way for you. I had an outstanding ticketing agent at United at O’Hare not only get me on an earlier flight, but one with a different airline for NO FEE when all other flights had been cancelled to my city!!

    I’m always sure to be genuinely nice to a ticketing agent (an offhand compliment about a gate agent’s broach got my husband and I free upgrades into business class). It’s gotten me out of so many jams and into so much better seats!

  29. Crazytree says:

    @myrall: I’ve tried MANY times to get an upgrade at LAX to no avail. Usually the ticket agents laugh in my face…

    Of course my flights are always 14-hour flights that are bursting at the seams, so that doesn’t help.

  30. Thrust says:

    @AnnieGetYourFun: Well DUH! We’re HERE to annoy the shit outta americans… What with our healthcare, drinkable beer, and selfrighteous knowledge that nobody will terrorize us because we ain’t pissed off any nation (except Quebec who can …) Its good to be on top too. Tho best flight with westjet was this one time they started a running joke that every time the jet bounced (on ground or inflight) they would pipe carribean steel drum music thru the cabin.

    @abz_zeus: The reason people flied on the concord was to say “Holy Shit! I gots to ride on teh concord!!!1oneoneone.

  31. andros says:

    Well..

    I work in IT – I support half a dozen remote site production plants. On average, travel time to any of them ranges from 2 to 7 hours on the plane (no direct flights to some of them), plus 1-4 hours of driving.

    In the first half of this year, I was living on the road. And, every now and then, I’d end up flying business or first instead of coach – simply because of sudden schedule changes. And, to be honest, if it weren’t for those few oases of peace, quiet and near-horizontal positions, odds are I would’ve gone postal by now.

    Yes, for most travelers, especially within continental US, 3h in economy is perfectly bearable. But after you total ~10-15h on the plane a week, times four weeks, times six months… you start getting really tired and worn down by kids kicking your seat, morbidly obese people insisting on window seat then getting up every 15 min, teens arguing with their parents or simply that really, really poorly groomed and obnoxiously loud Texan who needs to tell you about where he’s going, where he’s comming from and how his son is killing foreigners half a world away.

    Flying ‘above-economy’ is, for some of us, simply a sanity anchor…

  32. jburland says:

    In the 1970s, British Airways had an advert that said
    “If you want someone to do a first class job, give him a first class ticket”
    For most people, a good airline’s first class and business class products are a business tool. And “product” is just a seat – it’s the flexibility, the ability to work when you want to and sleep when you need to,
    And don’t make the mistake of comparing American carriers with decent network carriers. They’re in different leagues.

  33. jburland says:

    @jburland:
    Correction
    A product is NOT just a seat -……

  34. When I worked at 3DO, Trip Hawkins (founder of EA) used to book 2 coach tickets instead of one first class tickets. It allowed him to stretch out inexpensively w/out having someone crowd him.

    He had a few instances when they tried to fill the seat on an overbooked flight and got into arguments with flight crew.

  35. bzr says:

    @Alan Thomas: Coach class people like my family are used to and expect crying babies while first class people won’t deign down to anything so rude as a human larvae (that’s a joke) raining on their expensive parade.

    Flying coach these days isn’t as bad either when it comes to entertainment; long flights like to Shanghai or Paris have those nifty TV sets in the headrests that allow me to watch Mission Impossible III twelve times over. Then again, I’m easily amused. If anything, first class is massively beneficial on meal flights; I took advantage of an upgraded seat on a breakfast flight and gorged on Cheerios and slightly underripe bananas while the peons behind the curtain tried to crack open their measly granola bars. Muahahaha.

  36. jpp123 says:

    I just got back from Australia (changing planes in New Zealand) – I flew business on air NZ on my own dime ($8000 and change). why? I’m 6’5″ and I have back problems – a seat that goes flat and lets me sleep is worth it even if is costing me $500/hr.

    In past lives I was flying to london once a month and right round vis Singapore every third month – being able to sleep on the plane made working at the end of those flights practical.

  37. dvddesign says:

    @Thrust

    We have that in the US.

    It’s called Southwest Airlines.

    I’ve only flown 1st class once before, from DFW to LAX. It was nice, but a massive waste of extravagances. In retrospect, I could’ve cared less about a hot wet washcloth and a slightly larger seat. I still had to be stuck on a plane for 3 hours.

  38. mathew says:

    British Airways and Virgin now offer “deluxe coach” seats that are somewhere between cattle class and first class. You get 3″ extra width, 7″ extra legroom, a footrest, a power socket for your laptop, free drinks and better food, a headrest with wings so you can nap, and so on.

    I’m heading to the UK soon, and the upgrade was about 10% of the ticket price. Hell yeah I went for it. I’m hoping some of the US carriers catch on that not everybody wants the cheapest possible ticket at the cost of a miserable flight.

  39. FLConsumer says:

    Domestic (US) first class is a joke. US “business class” is what the minimum standard should be for cattle class.

    Personally, I’d be willing to pay $$$$ for seats in a separate section from crying babies.

  40. skyyguy says:

    They should force babies to the back of the plane, all in the same rows. Why is it accepted that a screaming baby is ok? If a drunk guy were singing loudly; they would be arrested when the plane landed.

    There are some people who have kids that don’t make noise. They are behaved, and they don’t act like retards bringing every damn baby thing on board. Or drag 3 bags, plus a car seat. or change the diaper in the seat, not the lav.

    For those people that have no common sense, and do these terrible things, we are reminded why abortion should never be outlawed. Can you imagine how many more stupid fcuks like this we would have?

    I’m glad the guys wife came back in tears from First Class. The people in First Class won the battle.

  41. camas22 says:

    this article has no substance. it started a good comment thread, but there’s gotta be some other article with some content, facts, figures, graphs, even an amusing picture that could have done the same.

  42. gamble says:

    @lordkenyon: Ha, I just practiced my best smile and friendliest voice so next time I fly, I’ll be well equipped to seduce the ticket agent into upgrading me on the cheap.

  43. Alan Thomas says:

    @Skyguy

    The baby wasn’t crying. The only thing my wife did was feed her. Be glad your mother didn’t abort you.

  44. srivaulx says:

    I’ve flown economy/coach for most of my travels out of my home country (Philippines). So far, on flights taken with Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Air France, British Airways, and Lufthansa…very rarely did my parents and I experience the kind of screaming baby/bratling behavior described in this thread.

    These are flights of from 3 to 16 hours to destinations in Asia and Europe I’m referring to here. So I suppose I’ve been *extremely* lucky to land on such quiet flights!

    In my case, the biggest inducement for first or business class travel would have to do with extra flying comfort for my parents, both senior citizens. I’m their default travel companion, you see.

  45. Thrust says:

    What airlines need are baby-sections on the plane. Somewhere seperated with soundproofing instead of just curtains. Probably at the back of the plane since the front is first class, but I could live with the cargo hold or the wings as well.

  46. BiscuitDoughJones says:

    @skyyguy: Hey, as much as I don’t like screaming babies on flights, you’re being WAY harsh. I mean, some babies can’t help it. It’s one thing if the parent is frantically trying to soothe the poor thing, but it’s another if they just sit there & ignore it.

    Example: On a flight from JFK, I board the plane only to find a Caribbean-looking woman (I gleaned this from her attire and the sound of the language she spoke)with a toddler in my assigned seat. I showed her my ticket & tried to explain that that was my seat. She respnded by angrily gesturing at her baby and saying something in a language I didn’t understand.
    Nice gal that I am, I let her have the aisle seat. I figured she would need it to tend to her kid.
    NOT SO. Before we even took off, the kid crapped itself. It squirmed and cried and stunk to high heaven. Bitch did not BUDGE from that seat to change the baby.
    I was stuck with baby shit smell in my nose all the way to LAX.

    Once we landed, she pulled out her cell phone and started gabbing in- get this- PERFECT ENGLISH. I wanted to rip the puka shells out of her weave and shove them down her throat. There is NO excuse for that type of behavior.

  47. acambras says:

    @BiscuitDoughJones:

    Not to Monday-morning-quarterback, but I would have:

    1) Complained to a flight attendant that someone was in my assigned seat and refused to relinquish it. I too am a “nice girl,” but the baby does not give her some sort of automatic free pass, and if she wanted an aisle seat, she should have booked sooner.

    2) Complained to a flight attendant that the baby needed changing and the mother was ignoring the situation.

    I don’t know if complaining would have done anything, but it beats letting yourself get walked all over and arriving at LAX seething with rage.

  48. BiscuitDoughJones says:

    @acambras:
    I thought about getting her chucked from my seat, but thought better of it.
    I mean, well-to-do teeny white girl ejects baby-burdened immagrant woman from the aisle seat- who looks like a total asshole?
    Also, in whatever language she spoke, she made it DAMN clear, in a mildly threatening crazy-eyed clenched-jaw kinda way, that I was not getting my seat.

    I figured alerting someone to the baby shit situation was pointless as well seeing as how I thought the woman did not speak English.


    I was 19 at the time and did not know how to stand up for myself. Nowadays, that shit would not be taken lying down.