The maxim that “you get what you pay for” could have been coined for modern air travel. Never has the metaphorical distance between the front and back of a plane felt so gaping. Today’s economy-class passengers overwhelmingly choose their flights on the basis of price, with little regard for the level of service they receive. Even as we moan that airlines are squeezing more seats into cattle-class, few of us click onto the second page of a Skyscanner search to find something more convivial. In becoming more stingy, airlines are giving us exactly what we are asking for.
The same cannot be said of first-class flyers. Here, competition encourages airlines not to decrease prices, but to increase the level of pampering. The poshest customers offer the juiciest profits. On transatlantic flights, for example, premium cabins (including business class) account for just 13% of seats but half of revenue. Little expense is spared in the fight for that revenue.
But is the cost of sitting at the very front of the plane worth it? There are several ways to think about this. We calculated the price of flights between Heathrow and JFK on the first Monday of July, August and September (an expensive day to travel on an expensive route)*. To fly across the pond in economy cost, on average, $1,544. To travel first class was $10,735. So one approach is to ask whether the amenities in the former are seven times worse than the latter.
True, the differences are stark. Before the flight, first-class travellers dine in the finest lounges while the hoi polloi make do with sandwiches from Pret. Onboard, those at the front can convert their chairs into a flat bed, curl up under a duvet and quaff complimentary champagne. Even when upright, the seat pitch (the distance between any point of a seat, and the same point on the one in front) will be about 78 inches. Anyone who has both turned left when boarding a flight and squeezed into a 31-inch pitched seat, will not need telling that life is different at the back of the plane.
However, quantifying that difference is subjective. So we might also say that the value of a service is related to the income of the person buying it (a $10,000 fare seems more reasonable to a millionaire than someone on minimum wage). A British Airways jumbo flying the transatlantic route might have 345 seats. A little under 5% of those will be in first class. If the income spread on an American-bound 747 were similar to that of America as a whole (an admittedly simplistic assumption), then the median household income of those lucky flyers, the top 5% of earners, would be $241,000 – meaning they would have paid 4.5% of their income on a ticket. In comparison economy class flyers get a bargain, even when they’re paying to fly on a busy day. They spend just over 3% of median household income.
But there is an easier answer to the question. Put simply: a service is worth whatever a customer is prepared to pay for it. In recent years, business class has become ever posher. Today, it is easily equivalent to the first-class experience of a decade ago. Lie-flat beds are standard, the menu is created by renowned chefs and the lounges are welcoming. Hence, fewer passengers are willing to pay for the marginal benefits of flying first class. More airlines are re-configuring their cabins, ditching their poshest seats. Only two airlines, British Airways and American Airlines, now fly a first-class service between Heathrow and JFK, the route that once defined the glamour of the jet-age. Instead, carriers are squeezing in more premium-economy seats, pitched between business and coach. If customers are no longer willing to shell out for it, then by definition, first class is not worth the money.