3 tips for handling upgrade guilt

seat2Do you suffer from upgrade guilt when you fly in first class? You probably do — and if you don’t, you should.

The woman seated in the last row of first class on my previous flight did. As I boarded the aircraft, our eyes locked, and I smiled as I shuffled back to seat 25D.

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She looked away. I could tell she felt sorry for me.

I admit it: I’m gripped by guilt when I get upgraded or somehow score a premium seat, which happens almost never, because I refuse to participate in those addictive airline loyalty programs. But when it does, I always cast a hesitant glance back to the economy class section, where the seats are stacked so close together that you almost can’t move, and I feel a little ambivalent – and ashamed.

When I started flying four decades ago, even the worst seat in economy class came with good service and ample legroom. To want that in 2013 is not wrong. But it’s practically unheard of.

Thanks to market forces that have been misunderstood, incompetent airline management and a small, loud group of elite-level frequent fliers, we now have two basic choices: an abundance of too-cheap, substandard seats and a select few flying sofas in the front of the plane that only the wealthiest or well-traveled can afford.

Airlines say they’re just following the money – that they just reward their best customers by treating them like Pharaohs. But that’s not the whole truth. Some airlines have quietly gone further, systematically removing basic amenities from the back and redistributing them to these demanding customers.

Today, the disparity between the “haves” and “have-nots” is truly embarrassing.

If you’re sitting up front, and you have mixed feelings, don’t worry. That’s perfectly normal. Actually, it means you’re probably one of the good guys – an elite-level frequent flier with a conscience and compassion. Here are a few things you can right do now to feel better.

Donate some of your miles to charity. Award miles may be a dangerous habit, but you can put them to good use by giving them away. No, it won’t fix the disparity between the classes, but it will help someone less fortunate travel for medical treatment or to to see a sick relative. You have my permission to feel better about yourself.

Give up your seat. If you ever rode the bus or train, you learned that it was good manners to give up your seat to an elderly man or a pregnant woman. Works the same way on a plane. Why not offer your seat to someone serving our country in the armed forces? It’s a great way to say “thank you.”

Fly on an airline that gets it. Both JetBlue and Southwest have fairer one-class configurations, where everyone gets treated with a minimum level of respect. If these airlines succeed – and thank goodness, they are succeeding – then it sends a powerful message that the segmentation that gave rise to a class of crybaby elites will not be rewarded. And that will lead to their demise. It can’t happen too soon.

If you’re one of the entitled elites, I’m sure you’ll disagree with me. Maybe you think the passengers in the back deserve to be wedged into their seats without adequate food, water and ventilation because “you get what you pay for.”

You may also believe that because you — or more likely, your employer — paid the airline a lot of money for your tickets, that you should be treated like royalty on the aircraft at the expense of everyone else’s comfort. When you try to make that argument in the comments, you will only prove my point, and I thank you for that.

If you feel no guilt when you’re upgraded, have no empathy with the other passengers suffering behind the drawn curtain, I’m not sure if I can do anything for you. Helping passengers find their conscience is way above my pay grade.

Do you feel guilty when you're upgraded to first class?

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150 thoughts on “3 tips for handling upgrade guilt

  1. When you started flying four decades ago there was plenty of room? Ever think part of that perception came from the fact you were 3 feet tall at the time, Chris? 😉 My 7-year old thinks there’s tons of room today!

  2. um.. i have never seen anyone get upgraded (other on then in tv or in the movies). my husband is what you would consider “obese” so when we fly first class (and pay full price) it’s because it’s medically necessary.

    meaning no guilt 4 me.

  3. Why on earth do you refuse to participate in the frequent flyer programs? I can understand why you don’t think they’re worth all that much but it’s not like you to leave free money on the table. That’s the column I really want to read.

      1. LOL – my point exactly! The nutters on FlyerTalk do exist, but they are a fraction of the people who use mileage programs. The vast majority are just normal flyers who belong to multiple programs and accumulate miles on whatever airline they happen to fly on to get where they need to go. And when they do that enough, they get miles that they can use to upgrade. Yay for them. Where’s the problem?

  4. Guilt? No, because I am paying for it.
    Not sure why you don’t like a frequent flyer program. We just cashed in our miles and are flying biz to LHR and first class back home for just the cost of the taxes. I love the mileage programs!

  5. There isn’t a choice for “No, I don’t feel superior to coach class (me most of the time), but enjoy the perqs of 1st class the few times I’ve gotten them.”

    I don’t have time to feel your guilt, Christopher. Deal with your own shame and stop trying to dump it on other people.

          1. Well Christopher if you feel flogged I apologize. I’m sure you know that I’m one of your biggest fans. But I do disagree with you on these two points:

            1. I have a right to recline my seat
            2. I have no reason to feel guilty if I get upgraded to first class (I paid for that upgrade somehow), and not feeling guilty does NOT mean I feel those in coach deserve to be treated like cattle.

            And I am most certainly NOT on Flyertalk! I got kicked out of there after I posted about my sexual assault by the TSA. 😉 Flyertalk has some sort of strange collusive relationship with certain TSA agents who frequent that board, and they do not allow us regular folk to criticize the TSA for their abusive tactics…while allowing the TSA agents to insult, demean and castigate us passengers with impunity.

          2. LeeAnne, you are obviously one of the ethical and compassionate passengers who sit in first class. I was careful to draw a distinction between the crybaby elites who are driving the gap between “haves” and “have-nots” further apart, and those who are just trying to get a little more comfortable on a plane. But it looks as if many commenters glossed over the story after reading the first paragraph, unfortunately.

            By the way, you have the right to lean your seat back until it hits my knees. It would be good manners if you also asked before leaning, but I’ll settle for a slow recline if possible, as opposed to jamming it back suddenly. it’s just good manners.

          3. I did read the entire story. What got me was the poll…the fact that you wrote it to be an either/or situation. Either I’m an inconsiderate jerk who cares nothing about the hardships of others, or I’m filled with guilt over getting to experience something that I either paid for or earned. Whereas the vast majority of people in first class are going to fall into that third category: no guilt for what we got, but empathy for the poor squished people behind us. If you’d included that option, I suspect the comments in here would have had a completely different tone.

            But I also remember what you’ve explained before, that you write your polls to inspire discussion…which this one certainly did! So…mission accomplished! 🙂

            And there was also this: “Do you suffer from upgrade guilt when you fly in first class? You probably do — and if you don’t, you should.” I’m sure I’m not the only person who chafed at the suggestion that we SHOULD feel guilt. Why should we?

            As for your knees…I guess my question is, do your knees trump my back? Which one of us gets to be comfortable, at the other’s expense?

            And for the record, I always notify the person behind me when I’m reclining, and do it gently. I don’t ask “permission” because I don’t feel I need it – I paid for the seat, including all of its functionality. But we can agree to disagree here, and just hope that we never end up on a flight with me in front of you. 😉

  6. How about putting the scorn where it should be, at the airline itself? Its the airline that has turned Economy into Steerage. I’m not saying it should be like first class by a long stretch, but why make the seats so close that if either person reclines he’s this close to creating a situation with the person either in front or back of him.

    I don’t need all these amenities. I’d be happy with a seat, a lite to read by (or not).

    1. Well that’s probably NOT on Delta international since to upgrade I need a Y B M booking class paid ticket to begin with. Care to explain how you fly first paying less than economy T class?
      Maybe you are travelling solely on (medallion) rewards on the lousiest days and times. I am interested to hear your strategy because I have family members who are literally overflowing with skyteam miles and cannot find a decent flight to use them. You can only fly to SFO so many times without getting sick of it. That’s where they find they can get an award seat. To Europe never on a decent date.

      1. The above is Lufthansa 1s class that I got for points plus about $110 (Delta does not have 1st only biz) but I always at peak times get 100k low level biz seats to Europe 3x times a year and explain how on the blog!

      1. Spam. That’s all it is. I really can’t stand the people who use this blog to advertise their products or services. They should be banned.

  7. I must admit that me and my family have been upgraded a couple of times WITHOUT USING POINTS on within Asia routes of Delta and Cathay Pacific. My brother and niece miraculouly got one (while I sweat out in coach) between HKG and JFK on CX BC. You should see those seats!
    Yes I feel a little guilt because I did not pay a cent or any miles or points to get upgraded.
    Sometimes, it is just luck. Sometimes you know somebody (secret). But I certainly won’t begrudge anyone sitting on business or first. Most of them paid or earned points somehow.

  8. Well… I started flying 48 years ago. What we now get in domestic first/business is less than what we got in coach in 1965.

    That said, I was high level elite FF back in 1996, when I was flying cross country to visit my parents during the holidays. My flight was canceled, but because I was elite FF, I was put on the next flight — a middle seat on a six hour red eye. This resulted in months of back pain, and an order from my physician to avoid coach for flights longer than 3 hours…

    I no longer fly as much as I used to, so I am no longer elite — so I pay for the seat, and on shorter distances, I take the train or drive.

  9. What a coincidence … I do NOT feel guilty nor ashamed when I get upgraded (which is about 50% of the time nowadays). I do feel that way when I sit in the back of the bus on domestic flights (I never buy a cheap seat for international travel; it’s not worth the struggle).

    I also don’t give airline miles to charity. They are simply too difficult to use for the promised “free” flights. My charities prefer cash, which is my MO.

    And as others have said, I have earned my privileges and enjoy the fruits of years and years of uncomfortable labor. But don’t refer to royalty when you see some of us in the front of almost every domestic flight. The seats are a bit more comfortable and, yes, the beverages are included. But the other hassles of modern air travel are still there, although maybe a light bit of an improvement.

  10. Wouldn’t know since I’ve only flown first class once. I had volunteered to be bumped but in the end, they had enough seats. The FA came to get me in my coach seat and asked me to follow her without saying where we were going. When I plopped down in a first class seat, I think I was too scared to actually ask for anything, being 17 at the time. And it was barely an hour’s flight from NYC to DC. One of the guilty elites can donate their miles to me, if that’ll make them feel better! I’ll have no compunction about closing that curtain! j/k

  11. I like this article and I get what you’re saying here, but I would disagree with the notion that Economy class is as bad as you make it. Naturally it varies by airline, and I will admit that with my relative youth I’m not really familiar with the “good ole days” of airline travel.

    Airlines have a tough job in promoting their product, that, at the end of the day, is more or less the same as the others. Everyone still has to check in, check their luggage, go to security, wait somewhere, board the plane, get off the plane, and then hopefully arrive at their final destination. What it boils down to is their own frequent flier program (which is also probably like everyone else’s) and each customer’s own personal experience on the day they decided to travel. Airline staff and employees are under a lot of pressure to deliver a consistent experience, even if a customer is wronged by things that cannot be controlled (weather, line, friendliness of TSA, quality of airport, etc).

    However, there are some pretentious “elite flyers” out there that feel that they should be given the world when they want it and that is frustrating. Also, I understand what you’re saying with the money factor, but look. If someone wants to spend three times the amount for a 1-2 hour plane ride, then let the sucker do it. It still doesn’t mean I should feel guilty when/if I am upgraded and others are not, because whether I fly economy, business class, or super duper top of the line class, I fly humble and with respect, and I don’t need the feeling of guilt to prove that to myself.

    If you do fly in a humble manner I believe you will get a better experience and you will actually take the time to enjoy your flight. A person upgraded to business class for the first time will probably enjoy it a lot more than someone who is there every week.

    1. Totally agree that it really isn’t as bad as we frequently like to make it out to be. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve felt like I was treated like a cow by an airline. It happens, but it’s not the norm. Most airlines employees are reasonably friendly and no worse than any other service people I interact with.

      I notice there isn’t as much room between the seats as there used to be, but it typically doesn’t ruin my flight. Free food is pretty much a thing of the past, but I remember when you got entire hot meals for free and airline food was still ridiculed. We like to gripe. It gives us something to do and makes us feel better.

      1. Joe it’s pretty bad if you cannot open your tray without hitting your belly if the seat infront reclines. I have to eat on long flights. I don’t have to on short ones so the tray issue does not bother me.

  12. I feel no guilt. My company spends nearly $80K a year flying my butt around the world.

    But I have given up my seat to a service member before…but not out of guilt. Out of courtesy.

  13. This must be a ‘Troll for comments’ post. I am not one of the entitled class.While I will sometimes pay for a preferred seat, I have never been upgraded nor paid for first class.

    I would not feel guilty and would not expect anyone in first class to feel guilty. I disagree that people in first class are treated better at the expense of the economy passengers. As with most things that we buy you receive what you pay for.

  14. As I wrote in a previous post, 20 years ago the air tickets used to cost several times more than today. I’m pretty sure if someone agrees to pay now the same fare he used to pay in the past, he will receive much more amenities and benefits today than he used to receive 20 years ago.

    1. Air travel prices haven’t quite advanced like consumer electronics. Compare a computer 20 years ago to one today. Right now you can get 100 times the performance for about one-fourth the cost.

      However, the issue with planes is that they’re still limited by the physical size of the plane. You can’t scale down a plane as you can scale down electronics. The physical requirements (i.e. energy costs) have only gone marginally down with more efficient engines and lighter/stronger materials.

      If only aircraft design could advance like electronics.

  15. Chris,
    I fly delta by preference. I have their mileage plan and their credit card. Means for an $85 annual fee I can skip paying $100/trip in baggage fees when two of us fly, and I get the privilege of boarding the plan ahead of the army of roll-a-boards fills the overheads to avoid the same fees. I also fly their codeshare commuter jet flights by preference, because then I know that same army of roll-a-boards will be tagged and sent to the hull as they should have been in the first place. I’ve flown 1st class once – on miles, before american could expire them from me after they pulled out of our airport (RDU was once a hub).

    So basically, I do everything I can to work with the system, and I should feel guilty. I got it. Glad you got it out of your system.

  16. It makes no sense to feel guilty for flying first class. When I was younger I flew coach almost all the time. I now either pay for first or use upgrade points.
    Years ago my wife and I were once seletcted at random to move up to first class. I contended that it was because she was so well dressed. People used to dress up to fly. I think the airline person was making room in coach for other passengers. We just felt lucky, not guilty.

  17. I don’t upgrade, but I do pay full fare for First Class; no guilt here! My $1800 ticket, compared to $200 in the back, is well worth the extras

  18. Hey if you get chance to escape steerage on an upgrade more power to you. Enjoy it. You may not have paid cash but you pay in other ways. You will never get on upgrade on your first trip. More than likely you have flown with them quite a bit. Just not the same level as 1k or the hyper platinum elites. The labels change every week. You can fly quite a bit (500 milers anyone) and never get upgraded. So enjoy it because it does not happen often or at all.

  19. Guilty no but will keep it in mind. I don’t eat the food, nor drink the booze, nor do I ever pay for the automatic upgrades. Why would I give the seat to a millitary person rather than a member of the clergy (in uniform) who is more likely to be in favor of non violence?

  20. Wow. Do I feel guilty when I fly first? Hmmm. Nope. I work quite a bit and save my money so that when I decide to travel, I can do so in first class. I do not fly enough now to earn FF points, so I just look for the good deals on first or business, buy and enjoy to the fullest. I have the same opportunity as everyone else on that flight to make a choice to fly first, business, or coach. If I made my decision and used my money to do that, why should I feel bad for those who opted not to?

    I am with the others that think that it should not have to be one or the other. I do think airlines should have better economy seats. But they don’t. If you don’t like it, don’t fly. Enjoy the road trip or traveling by train. Not as practical, but really, no one is forcing any of us on the planes. If people stopped paying for coach, then the airlines may rethink how they make the planes. But I refuse to feel guilty over paying with my hard earned money for a better seat. If you would like to sit in a better seat, save your money then travel when you have enough to purchase that better seat, but please don’t try to lay a guilt trip on those of us who have saved our money to purchase the better seat.

    1. I am heading to Hawaii to watch my son run a marathon. I looked into train service, but couldn’t find any. I don’t think my car can make that long of a drive, so I decided to fly. I won’t be going First class, but on my way back I am upgrading to Premium Coach since the Red-eye from Hawaii is not a fun flight. The (small) upgrade is for my back and to keep peace with my wife. No guilt here.

      1. did you check into taking a boat. My only point was that travel by plane is (mostly) not necessary. You are choosing to go see your son run, which is great that you are able to afford to, added benefit that it is in Hawaii. It is still a choice.

        1. What kind of choice is the boat? A cruise line will sell me an expensive ticket, several days to the islands. It does make a stop in Hilo, but not on the day of the race, so I have to abandon the rest of that cruise and wait a week for another boat to come in. So I will pay for two 12 day cruises and travel about half of each – much more expensive that flying. I can wait list for a freighter – they only take passenger occasionally. i might have to leave the mainland in February, live on the beach for a few weeks…not in my future.

          1. You are choosing to go. There is your choice. You are not being forced to go, it is a choice you are making. Most travel is not necessary. It is a luxury because it is not necessary. That is why you are choosing to fly. There are other options, you are choosing not to take them.

  21. Guilty? You’ve got to be kidding!

    My family missed a connection on Delta once and had to spend the night in a hotel. They put us on first class on the flight out the next morning. We didn’t ask for it, they just did it. I didn’t feel guilty, I felt thankful for a nice gift. My daughter recently was flying Delta to Orlando and the plane broke down so she spent many hours in the airport and finally was booked on a flight the next morning. I think she probably cried about it; she gets pretty emotional. She ended up in first class as well. I don’t think she felt guilty about it at all.

  22. I fly every week, and on my own dime. I get paid a flat rate and its expected that I cover my own costs. Many people I work with are within driving distance, so they make a lot more money, good for them. I don’t go way out of my way to fly on one airline just for the points, but because of where I live I don’t have many options. Sadly Frontier seems to never fly where I go anymore which dispositions me. I also have to balance time with family against costs. SouthWest may save me $100, but I also loose 4 more hours with my family on Sunday and have to connect on my way home. Its not just about loyalty programs, a lot goes into it. And not every elite flys up-front on every flight and demands things. Also not every one is elite because their company pays for them, for some of us, its the only way to get to work.

    As far as taking things out of coach and redistributing them amongst the demanding elites in first class? I beg to differ. When I first started flying there were more first class seats, and first class meals were good. Coach also had more leg room and much better service. Today, there are fewer first class seats, and much less legroom in coach. The coach meals are gone, and the first class meals are worse than the old coach ones. Nothing was taken from coach and redistributed to first class, something was taken away from everyone, and redistributed to airline executives in the form of bonuses.

    And as far as those elites who always fly first class. I have been upgraded 2 times since the Untied Continental merger. That is less than 3% of my flights, and on my last flight, the First Class Dinner was a hot pocket and 4 pieces of fruit, talk about glamorous. Prior to the merger, I was upgraded about 20% of the time. That’s still a lot of flying in coach, so no, on the rare occasion I get moved up from coach, I don’t feel guilty about it. The ones who should feel guilty are the airline executives who treat everyone like cattle to line their own pockets with more money.

    1. How true. Business/First on domestic is a joke considering how much they charge for it. In fact I wonder if they can ever have a true Business/First of those regional (small) jets that seems to be dominating the domestic system nowadays. I have always thought that PAID Business/First passengers were the one subsidizing part of coach cabin. They can’t possibly be the ones Chris is referring to. I think CE has his fingers pointed at the REWARD/UPGRADE folks. I am still thinking his points through. They are too deep and quite complex issues.

      1. One of my colleges from Canada says that his Air Canada Regional Jet trips have more leg room that main-line domestic F on United, along with video on demand and a fancy gourmet meal. He also said he gets upgraded 100% of the time. Makes me jealous, most of my regional trips have tiny coach seats where my knees hit the seat in front of me before the person even reclines and no F to get upgraded to.

        I agree, I always though that F subsidized coach. Though on the new United, F is super cheap compared to the old Untied, I think that’s why I never get upgraded. But I am not willing to spend the $700-$900 R/T for first class either, so its my fault too. Back per-merger it was $1,200-$2,000 for domestic F R/T.

        1. Take a look at this CRJ comparison:

          Air Canada CRJ-705 (CRA) 75 seats total
          pitch width seating
          Executive Class: 37.0″ 21.0″ 10 seats
          Economy Class: 34.0″ 17.0″ 65 seats

          United Airlines CRJ-700 (CR7) 66 seats total
          pitch width seating
          First Class: 37.0″ 19.0″ 6 seats
          Economy Plus : 34.0″ 17.0″ 28 seats
          Economy Class: 31.0″ 17.0″ 32 seats

          Looks like Elliott has a point. Economy Class in the USA gets shafted.

          1. Wow! The seats in first class on an Air Canada regional jet are wider than on a main-line united flights. Wider than the 757 and the 737. And more leg room that the 737. Not to mention the video on demand! And look at coach! I would not mind flying coach with that much room.
            Sadly, I usually end up on a CRJ-200. No Economy plus. And for some inhuman reason United flys those on 2-3 hour flights. Pre-merger they were on air buses which in my opinion have the best economy seats I have sat in in years.

          2. These are two different airplanes. The CRJ-705 is actually a variation of CRJ-900 which is a larger plane than the CRJ-700. United does not actually fly any 900s or 705s.

          3. I understand that the flying costs for the 900s are slghtly better or no worse than the 700s. So it might be cheaper for AC Jazz to operate the 900 body configured as a luxurious spaced 705 model. That said, this is a self induced United problem since their contract with regionals limit seat capacity to 70 seats. Hooray for Air Canada and their passengers.

    2. “The ones who should feel guilty are the airline executives who treat
      everyone like cattle to line their own pockets with more money.”

      YES! Exactly! BAM!

      1. I think it was you, LeeAnne, who said the flying public won’t/can’t pay for what the seat actually costs the airline to fly that person; therefore, the airline had to cram more bodies into the plane so that it can afford to continue flying said public. A valid point.

        1. I hope people who post, also provide some data supporting their positions or opinions. It will be easier to determine fact from opinion. There is enough in today’s article for anyone to get mad about.

    3. Emanon, I took a quick scan at your typical DEN-BOS R/T.
      Wow, I had no idea you can buy UA coach R/T for as low as $181.70.
      I think it is a 21day adv fare code – GE213HS.

      I priced a similar FC ticket and it was $2280.70 (Fare codes V2UP14N3*FUA).
      That is about a 12.6 : 1 ratio for FC:EC lowest fare.

      Let’s say a row of FC has 4 seats and a row of Coach 6 seats.
      Even if they lose 2 rows of coach or 12 seats in exchange for one row of 4 FC seats AND THEY CAN SELL THE FC seats, they will make much more. In fact with the 12.6 : 1 ratio, all they need to do is have one revenue FC pax and it will be equivalent to more than 12 low paying pax.

      Hmm, no wonder the hunt for that elusive award or upgraded seat. Everyone wants to be treated a little better, but that comes at a stiff price 🙂 I guess UA made Econ Plus so people won’t rebel.

      1. Wow, That G fare is amazing. I usually book 21 or so days out and its always at 0. Often the only fares left when I am looking are in the W-Q range, varying by flight. On average I pay around $450 R/T.

        I consistently get offers to upgrade for cash after I buy that would make my round trip ticket in F come to $1,000 to 1,200 r/t. Randomly I get strange buy up offer that would make first class $700-800 r/t but since its my own money I can’t justify either price (I especially can’t justify it to the wife).
        The new United app shows how many people in F are on upgrades. What shock me is how few people are upgraded meaning a lot of people still pay for first. Whether they pay the $2,200 R/T, $1,200 R/T, or $700 R/T I have no idea, though the one time I did buy-up, I showed on the list as an upgrade, but I did one of the cheapest buy-ups. During the times I fly, which are very busy travel times, I have seen only 3 upgrades processed for a 757 with 24 F seats. I have also been on an airbuses with 8 and/or 12 F seats, and seen no upgrades processed on those flights.
        I am thankful for Economy +.

  23. I felt so guilty on Virgin Atlantic (London-NYC), upgraded to 1st, that when the young woman came around and asked if I’d like a massage, I declined. But I did not feel guilty when, as a working journalist, I was on a 5-day Caribbean cruise and my cabin was the size of any Marriott I’ve ever stayed in. The majority of those aboard were CEOs of Baby Bell Companies. Har-Dee-Har! But LeeAnn Clark, below, is wrong about how you can get upgrades to 1st. I was on a fully booked economy section and two seats were so with same number, mine and a woman who was yel;ling at the cabin crew that I WAS IN HER SEAT!!! The only other seat available was in 1st, and guess which nice person got it? I paid only for economy and got upgraded to the suite at the Ritz.

  24. I don’t feel guilty about sitting in business or first class, because it’s so rare.

    I do think airlines should stop focusing on the bottom line so much and offer basic amenities.

  25. Years ago on Delta I used to pay for my first class upgrade, $30 per segment. Personally I liked this better than hoping I might get it for free. Over the years I’ve only been upgraded from time to time, but I enjoy it and when I get it I enjoy it without guilt. Same for a paid upgrade or business class purchased with miles.

    I don’t find the Southwest coach seats to be any bigger than the coach seats on other airlines, and in any event all airlines provide ampe leg room. It’s the seat width that’s the problem, and JetBlue and Southwest are no better than anyone else. The airlines are not making the first class seats bigger by making the coach seats smaller. They are making the first class seats bigger by being able to charge more for them and/or to use them as a reward for their most frequent customers. It kind of makes sense that the person flying four times a year can endure the unpleasantness of coach much better than the person flying four times a week, and the airlines recognize this.

    I really find it odd that Elliott doesn’t participate in the airline loyalty programs. They are specifically designed to ensure that no regular customer gets stuck in coach an unacceptable amount, and a failure to participate is just throwing money down the drain. Apparently Elliott would rather fly coach and complain.

    1. You must be on Jetblue’s E190 routes. They added 2 rows of even more legroom service (extra fee) so the ordinary rows only have 32″ pitch after that. Sorry.

  26. I’ve never actually flown domestic 1st or business class.

    I have flown First internationally once and business class four times. Three of those were when a travel agent relative was able to get special fares (something called “quarter fare”), although those options are limited. The other time was actually on a buddy pass where we were nice to the agent at the check-in counter (wasn’t that a discussion a few days ago?). Another time was when our seats didn’t exist and the only empty seats were in business class.

    Did I feel bad about it? Not really. I mean – in First the caviar was great and the Krug was cold. Did I mention that there were only four passengers and two flight attendants? However, the meal was still reheated and even though it was supposedly more expensive it still seemed like a warmed over TV dinner.

    Business class was pretty good, and once I even used the lounge. The appetizers were nice and I did make myself a rum and Coke.

    And no – I didn’t feel guilty. I don’t fly like that often enough to feel bad about the occasional chance I get to splurge.

  27. What upgrade guilt? Say the average elite who is upgraded has flown 50,000 miles. That is 100 hours seated in an airplane. And likely much of this has been stressful business travel. And the airline likely has been paid a lot of money, whose doesn’t matter to me. it seems a no brainer that the airlines should want to ease that person’s travel. On business travel my firm pays coach. I enjoy frequent upgrades and appreciate them. I fly on pleasure with my wife who has status only with me. This means almost no chance of an upgrade so I do spend time in coach. recently Delta added economy comfort and we have lately gotten to sit there. I don’t feel guilty there either or for my early boarding or free luggage. Fly often, get the right credit card or pay for it BUT STOP GRIPING.

  28. “Upgrade,” to me, means the ticket was obtained in a transaction which involved the “payment” of “airline miles” in part, or totally. I have chosen not to participate in any airline frequent flier club. For the purpose of ethics (ie: giving-up my seat to a wounded warrior) I do NOT consider an “upgrade” to be a situation where I was holding a coach ticket, paid completely with cash, and I elected to make supplementary payment (“additional collection”) to be “upgraded” to FC.* Because flight attendant behavior sometimes involves creating an airborne police state FC, from my view is simply better leg room, more under seat stowage, and extra room in the overhead bin. I sometimes find the “lavish” catering, and those stupid warmed nuts, to be a joke. Accordingly, I have adopted the following procedure in dealing with FAs: 1. Speak to a FA only to respond to a question. Do not initiate any conversation. 2. Respond to FA questions/comments with a. “Yes,” b. “No,” or c. “At this time I am asserting my right to remain silent.” 3. Refuse all food, drink andother cabin service. If your departing airport sells food on the “airside,” bring food on-board.
    * Yes, I am aware that a FA, with a bug up her tail, can “exile” me, against my will, into coach if I’m holding a FC ticket that was upgraded–even with cash–from coach. On the other hand I would be entitled to a refund of the amount paid for the upgrade.

  29. What a cretinous post! Sme of us save up for months or years, buy our own tickets and treat ourselves to well deserved trip in premium cabins. We don’t need sanctimonious windbags trying to add guilt to the feeling! I really hope airlines take you at your word and upgrade the elderly or armed forces so that you never have to feel this “faux” pain!

  30. I almost always fly coach except if I am with my older and wiser husband. He was a business traveler for years and is used to first class. When we have traveled together and purchased coach tickets, he always upgrades to first at the last minute. Sometimes it’s one of those deals where it’s an extra $100 to upgrade to first class seats near boarding time when those seats were not sold, so I feel a little less guilty. Plus, that’s a real bargain.

  31. I don’t feel guilty, I feel annoyed at all those people filing past smashing their stuff into my head and shoulders. Then I remember that I grew up in Miltona, Minnesota and laugh at myself. Who do I think I am? However, I have basketball-player legs and wide shoulders, so airline loyalty programs are about the best thing that has ever happened to me. If I had to sit in coach, I wouldn’t travel. And I LOVE to travel.

  32. This article seems to go to the two extremes. I would focus on ensuring that economy class was suitable for humans on all airlines and not worry about things to do with first class. Most of us fly economy just about all of the time and my impression is that every economy seat should have space like “United Plus”.
    As for the first class, it is sold as a premium service and at a premium, and it subsidizes the tickets for economy class., They are too overpriced and it is just gouging. Most of the people at the front of the bus are just ordinary people. Most companies won’t pay for business class upgrades, they cost too much.

  33. Didn’t we have recent complains that domestic first class is not really worth the price when compared to such carriers as Singapore or Emirates? It follows that hardly anyone in domestic F actually paid for it with their own money – everyone’s traveling on upgrades and awards. That being the case, why feel guilty when you yourself are upgraded?

    1. We sell domestic first, so not everyone is there on upgrades or awards. Those are capacity controlled and if space isn’t selling, then they might increase the allotment. You can’t compare domestic first to international first class and it also depends on the type of plane.

    2. I, and many others, pay for my first class with money, upgrades, or awards, depending on which makes the most sense on a given flight. I paid cash for my first class Christmas flight to see my relatives

  34. What I feel most guilty about on an airplane is asking the person in front of me to put their seat back up because I can’t put my tray down to eat. People seem to think its OK to recline into some stranger’s lap long as they’re comfortable. I don’t know where this behavior started but I don’t think I’m trusting enough to close my eyes and put my head in someone’s personal space while they’re trying to pour a coke over ice or eat a full meal while staring at the top of my head instead of the inflight movie. Just invites tragedy doesn’t it? And yet everytime I ask politely to actually use the space the airline gives me I’m made to feel like I’m the Grinch of Air Travel.

    1. I always laugh at comments about not being able to put a tray table down. Hint – look where the hinge point of the tray table is – at the bottom of the seat, the same hinge point as the seat back. The movement of the seat back does not affect the movement of the tray – they are independent.The distance between the try and seat back gets shorter, but the distance to the person in the seat doesn’t. Nice try.

      1. However, I’ve seen the back of a seat hit the items placed on the tray. It might also affect the ability to move items around the tray.

  35. Domestic business and first class today are merely what economy class used to be. Things have degraded that much over the years. I usually fly United because they get me where I want to go with one flight out of Newark. I never flew for work and I pay for my own travel. I am gold level now, down from platinum the last few years. (Kids don’t live nearby and I do try to travel internationaIly while I can, since my retirement.) I fly plenty in coach too and will probably not be upgraded this year. I certainly don’t feel guilty, but I do feel plenty lucky when I sit up front. As for donating my miles, they go to my kids and grandkids so that they can attend family events.

    1. Service perhaps to some degree, but not the pitch and legroom. Legroom way back was only a little bit more. I remember the seats back then, and they were actually about the same size as today. A 737 is the same width today as it was in 1980 and is still 6 across.

      Even so, first class typically comes with luxury items (high end booze especially) that simply never came with coach.

      1. I agree on seat width, planed did not get any narrower. But I think the leg room used to be much more in economy than it is today, I’m talking 5 or 6 inches more.

        As far as the booze in first class, when you fly a US domestic airline, its the same stuff they serve in coach, they just poor it for you. Not like back in the day.

        1. You need to pay for it in coach these days.

          I’ve flown first class (international) once in my life. I don’t remember all the appetizers, but I specifically asked for the Sevruga caviar, cream cheese, and crackers. We were on a flight with four people in first class, and it went all to me. The champagne choices were non-vintage Krug (a split) and vintage Dom Perignon. They also had expensive liquor including single malt Scotch and XO Cognac. The meal was total crap. No matter how hard they try, reheating a meal in a plastic tray covered with plastic always falls short.

          I’ve also been on a short haul international business class. All they had was Moët Brut Imperial. Yeah – that was roughing it.

          1. Wow! Moët Brut Imperial is the second most expensive champaign I have ever tried. I would be very happy with that. $50 a bottle, and tasty to boot.
            On domestic first class in the US they don’t have champaign; and the red wine tastes like rubber bands. I wrote down the name of the red and found it on-line for $4 a bottle. Also, the best scotch they have in first class, is the swill I can buy at target for $20 for 1.5 liters. I don’t actually buy it, but I saw it there for that price. Very sad in my opinion.

          2. I won’t say what airline, but my family knew someone who worked for an international carrier. They’re required to throw stuff out after a certain time, and the employees divide the spoils when it happens. Some airlines are tougher than others. I remember years ago a TWA flight attendant got fired (1988 – looked it up) for taking milk that would have otherwise have been tossed according to airline policy.


            And some of the stuff that they brought home was the first class international booze. We got some of it as gifts, including several bottles of Dom Perignon and Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill. As far as I recall, nobody got fired.

  36. “Upgrade,” to me, means the ticket was obtained in a transaction which involved the “payment” of “airline miles” in part, or totally. I have chosen not to participate in any airline frequent flier club. For the purpose of ethics (ie: giving-up my seat to a wounded warrior) I do NOT consider an “upgrade” to be a situation where I was holding a coach ticket, paid completely with cash, and I elected to make supplementary payment (“additional collection”) to be “upgraded” to FC.* Because flight attendant behavior sometimes involves creating an airborne police state FC, from my view, is simply better leg room, more under seat stowage, and extra room in the overhead bin. I sometimes find the “lavish” catering, and those stupid warmed nuts, to be a joke. Accordingly, I have adopted the following procedure in dealing with FAs: 1. Speak to a FA only to respond to a question. Do not initiate any conversation. 2. Respond to FA questions/comments with a. “Yes,” b. “No,” or c. “At this time I am asserting my
    right to remain silent.” 3. Refuse all food, drink and other cabin service. If your departing airport sells food on the “airside,” bring food on-board.

    * Yes, I am aware that an FA, with a bug up her tail, can “exile” me,
    against my will, into coach if I’m holding a FC ticket that was upgraded–even
    with cash–from coach. On the other hand I would be entitled to a refund of the
    amount paid for the upgrade.

  37. Should be Fun on an upcoming trip I have. I have a Airtran Biz Upgrade, Exchanged some credits that were going to expire for the upgrade.
    My 16yo son is flying ‘with’ me. He does not have a upgrade so he will be in the back somewhere. Should be fun to see his reaction when I Plant myself in 2A and he back in 32B..

  38. I do not understand why people are missing the point. Services is down in economy because people do not want to pay the prices they used. Americans demand cheap flights and then complain about the service. You get what you pay for. The people in premium, business and first class are paying for better services!!!

    In 1937, it cost $1710 to fly roundtrip San Francisco to Hong Kong on Pan Am. That is over $27000 in 2012 money. You can buy two first class tickets for that price today.

    Service is down because people shop based on price alone. If people were willing to pay more for service they service would be there…

    1. The people in premium, business and first class aren’t paying for better services only, they are paying for more space too.

    2. Frank, how does Jetblue and Southwest compete in TODAY’S domestic market? How can they offer some of the lowest fares and still provide decent seating in the all-economy class airplanes?

      1. Have you flown on Southwest since they added a row of seats to their planes squeezing the rows closer together? What used to be a bearable amount of leg room is no more. When the person in front of you reclines, you get a mouth full of their hair or can read the book they are holding unless you also recline. Also, SW used the same tray hardware on the new seats as they did on the old seats so a tray that I used to be able to lower without issue now hits my stomach and will not go down (and I have lost weight over the past couple years (30 + pounds) so it’s not me who is the problem)

        1. No I have not flown them in 2012 after they added an extra row in their 737s. I understand they reduced the recline angles to minimize knee injuries.
          My wife and the kids use WN to get to Arkansas ftom LGA. The reason is the other airlines are worse and charge for baggage. If I have to go with them I drive and make a stop in the country. I particularly like East Tennessee and Virginia.
          I think Southwest can get away with reduced pitch because most of their flights are short and they are not going head to head with Jetblue on most routes.
          If I fly out of NYC, Jetblue is still my favorite since it has better seats and a bag free.
          I hope Jetblue does not change for the worse. They used to have 156 seats, now only 150 on the A320s. Now that was a good move considering the max seating cspacity is 180 for that airplane.

        2. Oh btw, I flew a similar 73G configuration on ANA recently NRT-CTS-HND.
          Seatguru report a pitch of 32″ for ANA and 32-33″ for Southwest.
          I had no complaints on my short ANA flights. The trays didn’t hit my belly.

        3. Yes, Southwest has made the seat cushions thinner, and added 2 rows of seats, while claiming that legroom is preserved. As you point out, the legroom has not been preserved, and that is my experience, as well. I do think they have reduced the recline a little bit. They call the new seats “Evolve” interior. I call it “Devolve”. The new seats are very uncomfortable. Also, the seatback pocket has been made thinner, in an effort to provide an illusion of more legroom. Fail! The seatback pocket is now useless, since it will barely hold a single paperback book. Because of this, I only fly SWA for short flights of 1 hr.

      2. For one thing. They fly all economy aircraft on both short and long haul flights. The fly smaller fleets of fewer sixed planes and the offer fewer destinations (Southwest actually has a decent fleet size but flies only 737’s as far as I know). Both airlines use older refurbished equipment and do not invest in brand new planes.

        This is a real advantage. On JetBlue you can play a little extra for “even more space”, but that is two or three rows at the front and the exit rows. Southwest does not even offer that.

        You can fly to any real international destinations on either discount airline (I am not counting the Caribbean). Overall, they destination you can get are pretty limited (75 on JetBlue, 78 on Southwest – compare that to 374 on United, 356 on Delta and 260 for American – the three highest totals of any airlines in the world).

        As much better as JetBlue and Southwest’s services may be in economy they do not come close to what you get in business or first class on any other airline.

        I do not like the pricing system that the older carriers use (does the world still need the Y-class fare), and I certainly do not think that the airline industry seems to work where bigger is better. However, my original point stands, air travel is far cheaper than it was when the services are better despite the airplanes themselves and jet fuel being more expensive.

        More than anything services have suffered because of the price wars. Consumers put price first when choosing their airline and the airlines respond by focus on how low they can make their fares when some logs into Orbitz, Kayak or Expedia. How are they supposed to do this without cutting something?

        My advice, choose your carrier based on service instead of price. I always spend more to fly on an international carrier – especially AirFrance or JAL – over one of the US carriers. I try to fly JetBlue or Virgin American when flying domestic because I like their services (I have seen Delta and American have cheaper Logan to JFK flights then JetBlue on occasion, but I would pay the extra $20).

  39. It wouldn’t bother me in the least if the airlines did away with first class completely and made every seat the same size. I sometimes wonder if the airlines are sorry they ever put the loyalty programs into place. I’ve gotten madder at delta about their sorry award calendar than I have just about anything else (TSA ranks as my number hate and reason I fly as little as possible). But, I will have to at least defend one of the so-called entitled elite traveler. My husband has 1.5+ million miles with delta and he is one of the nicest elite travelers I know. And, no, he is not reading this post. I have seen him not only give up his seat in first class to a military person or an older traveler but I’ve also seen him help people flying with children help entertain the children while in the air and calm first time flyers during rough weather. Not all elite travelers behave as if they’re owed something.

    1. I wish more travelers were like your husband. I love most children on plains and its fun to help entertain them. Nothing irks me more than people getting overly upset about kids on a plane. Everyone was a kid at one time. Some parents are pretty bad, but most of them are not. And kids are so darn fun!

    2. Me, too. It would not bother me the least bit if domestic airlines get rid of first class. Take a look at a comparison of JetBlue’s A320 seat configuration compared to United’s and Delta’s.
      JetBlue Airways Airbus A320 (320) 150 seats
      pitch width seating
      Even More Space Class: 38.0″ 17.8″ 42 seats
      Coach Class: 34.0″ 17.8″ 108 seats

      United Airlines Airbus A320- Vers 1 138 seats
      pitch width seating
      First Class: 38.0″ 20.5″ 12 seats
      Economy Plus Class: 36.0″ 18.0″ 36 seats
      Economy Class: 31.0″ 18.0″ 90 seats

      United Airlines Airbus A320- Vers 2 144 seats
      pitch width seating
      First Class: 38.0″ 20.5″ 12 seats
      Economy Plus Class: 35.0″ 18.0″ 42 seats
      Economy Class: 31.0″ 18.0″ 90 seats

      Delta Airlines Airbus A320 (320, 32T, 32V) 144 seats
      pitch width seating
      First Class: 36.0″ 21.0″ 12 seats
      Economy Comfort Class: 35-36.0″ 17.0″ 18 seats
      Economy Class: 31-32.0″ 17.0″ 114 seats

      In order to support First Class, United and Delta have to give coach class passengers only 31″ of space between rows. If you want more legroom you need to pay extra and get Economy Plus or Economy Comfort.

      So in order to make 12 people very happy, 90 to 114 people have to suffer. JetBlue has no First Class cabin, so no one has to suffer.

      1. I disagree – the first class is not gilt. If you look for single class airplanes, you won’t find more legroom for the economy class.

        I.E.: TAM (the Brazilian company I used to fly domestically), has at its single class A319 & A321 planes 31″ pitch for all seats. And its Economy Plus at A320 is a joke, with 32″pitch – BTW, the same pitch TAM uses in its international economy class at A330, A340 and B777 (www.seatguru.com)

        1. Take a look at JetBlue’s pitch for economy – a minimum of 34″.
          JetBlue has a single class cabin – economy only.

          I was referring to USA Domestic travel.
          Some foreign airlines push the A320 seat limit to 180 seats !!!
          JetBlue used to have 156 seats, now 150. Go jetblue.

          1. I only use TAM as example 😉

            And you are (unfortunately) wrong – Air France has an A320 version (Metropole 1) with 185 seats!!!

          2. You must be new here. We NEVER admit fault. We just argue endlessly. Come on, Helio, get back in the game. 🙂

          3. I must tell you that I look around about it. 😉

            But when I found an article stating that A320 is certified for up to 180 seats, I was obligated to give up. Even if some airline decides to squeeze even more the passengers with less pitch, they cannot use the extra space to put an extra row.

            OK, I could continue the discussion stating that it was a certification thing, not a space constrain thing. That according to this Air France document:
            its A320 has now 178 seat (another proof that TonyA is right), and an “extra” 2″ to 3″ legroom in each row (I really didn’t find this extra space when I flew AF last October, but it’s another story).

            Because AF “gave” extra 2″ or 3″ for each passenger, AF in theory could “collect back” this extra space. In a plane with 31 rows (according to TonyA post), it means AF can save 62″ to 93″, enough for 2 or 3 more rows, increasing the seating capacity to 190 or 196 seats.

            Or, if seat guru pitch data is correct (32″ pitch for the A320 Metropole 1), we can squeeze one inch for each row (and reduce the pitch for 31″, which is considerable acceptable for some US carries), and we can save 31″, enough for an extra row, increasing the airplane capacity to 184 seats.

            But because the aircraft is certified for only 180 seats, we cannot use this theoretical space to add more rows, and TonyA is still right, and I’m still wrong.

          4. Here’s a seatguru map of a 180 seat configuration for the A320.
            Note it’s 6 seats (3-3) x 30 rows. Note the pitch, 30″.
            So even on a single class cabin, a flight can be miserable.
            You are correct in pointing that out.

            Maybe the better disclosure rules we need is airlines to disclose the seat specifications that you are “buying”, so there are no surprises.

          5. You cannot trust anything owned by Expedia to be correct all the time.
            Peace Helio. I apologize for losing my cool.

          6. Don’t worry. I have to apologize too, because English is not my first language, and sometimes my vocabulary isn’t good enough to allow me to express correctly. Re-reading my last posts, I could end them in a softer way… :-/

          7. Here is why YOU ARE WRONG.

            Get your fingers to do the counting on AF A320 Metropole 1.
            It only has 178 seats.

            Here’s the count:

            AF A320 Metropole Version 1
            Row 1 = 3
            Rows 2-30 (x13)= 28 x 6 = 168
            Row 31 = 5
            Row 32 = 2
            Total = 178

            If you are basing your knowledge on Seatguru then you are most definitely WRONG.

          8. OK, I really used the seatguru figures, I didn’t bother to do the math to check if their sum are correct.

      2. Or, in order to make the board of directors happy, the airline makes 114 people per flight suffer. United, and other airlines, could simply remove one row of seats from coach and spread out the inches of space among the remaining 84 – 108 seats (and charge everyone $30 or so more to make the same revenue). Don’t have measurements to calculate from, but the remaining rows would probably get at least two inches more each.

        What really makes me angry is the seating on the new United 787. Boeing made the plane a few inches wider than the 767, which is the intended replacement, with the intention of the passengers ending up with a couple more inches of shoulder room in coach. What was a set up (on CO pre merger) of 5 wide in business/first (2-1-2) and 7 wide in coach (2-3-2) on the 767 has turned into 6 wide in business (2-2-2) and NINE wide (3-3-3) in coach on the 787. To squeeze the extra seats in, the new United made each of the coach seats more than an inch NARROWER. When was the last time you heard anyone say the seats in coach were even wide enough, much less too wide and needing to be narrower?

        1. The airlines create the seating environment that leads to class warfare.
          They can’t pack people in the rear like sardines and make them march through first class, parading them like cattle, without a revolt.
          At least with a one class cabin, there is no first class envy.

          1. At least on the 787, coach passengers don’t go through 1st. They have their own entry door further back in the plane.

            I agree that on the single class planes there is no seat envy — except for those who get the exit rows where some airlines still have extra inches of leg room. 😉

          2. ANA has only 158 seats on their 787. UA has 219.
            You know which one to take. The Japanese one of course.

            Back to single class cabins with Economy Plus sections.
            JetBlue has them. Not sure how much seat envy that causes.
            The price difference seems reachable for most people. So maybe not too much (envy).

  40. Brave piece, took guts to write it. But you are right most of the time… Blame should not be placed on those who are bribed, but on the bribers…You should take your miles,,,, you are paying for them..

  41. Elliot, your hatred of loyalty programs and first class, and your feeble attempt at travel socialism is mindblowing. This has got to be the most ridiculous of all the posts I have seen you write, and only further reinforces the idea that you are clearly extremely bitter at being so little known a travel writer you rarely get upgraded! If you want to give up your seat by all means! Let me know what flight you are on, I will happily take it from you and sleep like a baby in the process!

  42. What about a middle way? In other words, I don’t have a problem with the notion that you can/will get more if you pay more. What I *do* have a problem with is the way the airlines treat everyone else; I just don’t buy the argument that, in order to give more to the big spenders, they must necessarily treat everyone else like crap. And for me, the biggest problem in coach is the lack of space. I’m 5’8″, and I don’t really have enough leg room in coach — but I’m also broad-shouldered, and I don’t have anywhere near enough room for my shoulders!

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