Beware! “Last” class is taking flight

Think coach class can’t get any worse? Think again.

Big airlines are working hard to make their economy-class sections more “competitive” with discount carriers. Seats are getting smaller and service is scarce. There’s even a name for this new airborne experience: “last class.”

“The airlines used to brag about flying the friendly skies,” says Kendall Creighton of the consumer advocacy group FlyersRights.org. “But that happy slogan has been corrupted into flying the abusive skies.”

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist. Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

How bad is it?

American Airlines recently announced that beginning next year, it will offer tickets with “less frills” but a “really cheap price” in markets where it competes with discount carriers such as Spirit and Allegiant. Delta Air Lines already offers something similar — what it calls “basic” economy class tickets, which allow no changes, refunds, upgrades or advance seat reservations.

That’s not much of a ticket.

Although the airlines haven’t officially created a formal fourth class of service yet, they’ve done so informally by scooting their seats closer together, a move politely referred to as seat “densification.”

But the worst part? They’ve made travelers feel like second-class citizens from the moment they book their ticket until they leave the airport.

“The airlines have turned what was once a fun, exciting and pleasant experience” into a painful slog, says Pablo Solomon, an artist who lives in Austin.

The lack of service in last class is the most troublesome, passengers say.

Helen Kueter, a retired nurse from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, remembers a recent flight from Chicago to Dublin that was supposed to leave at 5:25 p.m. But mechanical problems kept pushing the departure back. At around midnight, airline representatives announced the flight had been canceled.

“First-class passengers were given assistance in rebooking,” she remembers. “Coach passengers were given a slip of paper with an 800 number and told to fend for themselves.”

That’s last-class service.

Where’s all this headed? Well, Juliette Coulter just experienced the future of air travel when she flew from San Diego to Los Cabos, Mexico, on Spirit Airlines. She felt nickel-and-dimed for everything “from carry-on luggage, checked bags, beverages and snacks, to in-person check-in,” says Coulter, who runs a marketing firm in Dallas. “When we had to change our tickets, they charged us more than $200 for just one leg.”

To be fair, some people say the downgrades make perfect sense. “Last class exists because the airlines are a business,” says Phil Derner, Jr., founder of the industry news site NYCAviation. “The airlines that really need to meet their bottom line in a big way are going to push the limits of what they can get away with, and those particular airlines do so because their passengers allow it by patronizing them.”

Airlines say people like Coulter deserve last class because they asked for it. Over and over, passengers like her, Kueter and Solomon have voted with their wallets by booking the cheapest tickets they can, they insist.

But that’s pure spin. No one asked to have the seats wedged together, to have an airline ticket eviscerated to the point where it’s almost unrecognizable, and to be abused by an underpaid cabin crew. No one asked for last class.

The fix is easy. Most of the complaints would vanish if these last-class passengers were treated with a little respect. They can almost tolerate the cramped quarters and the fees for everything, but at least treat them like people. Bring back a little civility to the plane.

And if airlines can’t figure out what constitutes a reasonable amount of legroom, personal space and service, then perhaps our government regulators can help them.

How to avoid ‘last class’

• Don’t automatically book the cheapest flight. There’s usually a reason it’s priced so aggressively. Odds are, the airline will try to make up for it by shrinking the seats or adding “gotcha” fees to the ticket price.

• Buy a flight on an airline that doesn’t treat you like cattle. Southwest Airlines and Virgin America are the most egalitarian among domestic carriers. Singapore Airlines and Emirates have a reputation for flying planes with no last class in them.

• Know your rights. Although you don’t have a right to a comfortable seat or friendly service, at least according to the law, you do have the right to compensation when something goes wrong. For example, Kueter should have received a hotel room for her mechanical delay. Find out more from the Transportation Department’s Fly Rights brochure, which you can find online at airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/publications/flyrights.htm.

29 thoughts on “Beware! “Last” class is taking flight

  1. If the seat spacing gets any less I won’t fir because of my thigh length. As it is, when I can I book comfort economy to get more legroom on international flights. I really do not look forward to the future of air travel.

    1. Exactly. I already can’t fly coach on most airlines. I can’t fit in premium economy on some airlines so I usually end up with business/first class. Tall people are being forced to pay the absolute highest fees of any passengers. If you are obese, you may have to pay for two coach tickets but that’s still usually FAR cheaper than a business/first ticket.

  2. The key is in the advice not to buy the cheapest ticket if it comes with no respect. But surely the government will have to step in at some point. Government is supposed to be there to improve the lives of the people, but unfortunately too many politicians feel it is there to improve the power and prestige of themselves!

    1. That “Government is supposed to be there to improve the lives of the people” is a political theory that is antithetical to the very foundation of the United States.

    2. And enough people will gladly take the lack of assigned seats checked bags or ability to change flights if it means they’re going to save $50. Great that they have this option. Don’t like it don’t buy it. Makes sense to me

  3. “Last class exists because the airlines are a business…The airlines that really need to meet their bottom line in a big way are going to push the limits of what they can get away with”

    And there you have it – the clearly stated reason the regulators (I am talking you YOU, USDOT!) need to step in pronto and set the MINIMUM level of service that constitutes the service level “bottom” towards everyone is racing. Otherwise, this will only end with an otherwise preventable mass tragedy with the obligatory Congressional hearings, mechanical “thoughts and wishes” and hand-wringing. At BEST the end game here is ugly and uncomfortable.

    The assertion that airlines are a business and therefore we have to suffer is a great example of circular reasoning. In this time of income stratification, formerly-comfortable people are being squeezed to book last class because they desperate to save on essential travel. Using that “voting” to justify the bad conditions is pretty transparent.

    As a last note, weren’t the airlines a business post-9/11 but before they started all these shenanigans?

  4. Please explain why Ms. Kueter should receive a hotel room for her canceled outbound flight? Was she a transit passenger? Then sure. But if she was originating from there, then sending her home was the logical thing to do if there were no more flights, no?

      1. They might “want” to stay in a hotel if their drive back home is 2-1/2 to 3 hours away or if they are elderly or with small children. Public transportation sometimes stops at certain hours. How ANY airline with a mechanical or crew delay (totally controllable by the airline) does not accommodate ALL passengers is disgusting service. Passengers need to come down hard on any Management or Supervision at the time of the event or quickly follow up as soon as possible in any way they can (though most are beating a dead horse). More government rules need to be instituted.

        1. I see your point. I’ve stayed in the airline-comped hotels a few times when stranded at a hub airport. To call them fleabags is an insult to fleas.
          If I could, I’d return home; heck, I’d return to the womb to avoid a night at those airline-approved roach motels.

          1. I actually got stranded in an airport due to in-flight mechanical failure and ended up in a more than nice enough hotel. The problem was, they took so long to get us accommodations and the flight they gave us all was so early that we weren’t even at the hotel long enough to take a nap.

          2. Wellsir I think that perhaps you did not stay in the hotels I reference, the ones Our Friends, the Airlines put me up in. One I remember as being particularly unfit for human habitation. When I protested, the desk clerk did say that for an extra sum, we could stay in a more recently updated section of the property. It was an almost marginally acceptable room. I support the ultra grungy section was the kinda room the airline “comped” its unfortunate customers.

  5. As long as many people are willing to purchase these “last class” type tickets, the airlines will gladly accommodate them. One would think that as much as these stories have been reported to the public, the public would know what to expect when buying the lowest cost tickets. When you buy the lowest fare available on some airlines (more coming) then one should expect to pay for any ‘extras’ he/she wants on board. It seems the flying public is always complaining about the high cost of flying, so the airline industry (well, some of the airlines) have developed these no frills fares. It all boils down to you get what you pay for. Don’t like what you get, then don’t buy it!
    Having said that, I really do wish the DOT would mandate a seat pitch that would stop the airlines from continually reducing it. But, it seems it is willing to let the free market take care of itself. After all, when the airline industry was regulated, everyone was complaining. Somehow, I seem to think things were a bit better when it was regulated.

    1. It’s too simplistic to say if you don’t like it, then don’t buy it. Lots of folks have to fly as part of doing their job and, if they are like my husband, you have to pay as little as possible as mandated by his company. Thankfully, his company has not said that he has to buy a “basic” fare when flying delta. And, spirit, frontier, etc. don’t have the number of flights to make flying them time efficient.

      1. That’s company policy, not public policy. The terms and conditions of one’s employment go into the decision-making calculus of whether to accept a job with one company or another . . . or even as to what career track one chooses for oneself.

        1. Considering he’s been working for 35+ years, he’s seen lots of changes in the business of flying for business. Not so easy to job jump either.

    2. And the problem is more that the requirement that some extras cost additional money. There should be a certain basic level of comfort that is required of all airlines. It’s one thing to charge for snacks (one can always bring in a few things to eat on-board), or for a ticket change, but to provide seating that is not only terribly uncomfortable but possibly harmful to health (DVT?) is simply wrong – even if there are some who are willing to – or must – buy the “cheap seats”. It’s in establishing the basic comfort level requirements where the government could come in. I would suggest that, for health reasons alone, the feds have the authority to establish minimum seat dimensions, pitch and width, along with minimum access to water, lavatory, fresh air, etc. And if all airlines had to comply with such minimums, it would level the playing field, and eliminate the argument they they are at a disadvantage when they provide such basics.

  6. “Don’t automatically book the cheapest flight. There’s usually a reason it’s priced so aggressively. Odds are, the airline will try to make up for it by shrinking the seats or adding “gotcha” fees to the ticket price”

    Many times, the reason for the cheapest flight has nothing to do with the seating arrangements or the way that you will be treated. The pricing of the least expensive flight could be because the flight leaves at an inconvenient time (5:30 am?) or involves a change of planes with several hours between flights. Prior to the UA-CO merger, one of the least expensive ways to get from Tampa to Los Angeles was to book an itinerary on Continental Airlines changing planes at Newark. That’s not a typo, Newark NJ. The routing was almost 1300 miles longer than CO’s most direct routing via Houston.

    I never put myself through the 11 or 12 hour ordeal to save about $50, but I would guess that other people did.

  7. Thanks Christopher, again, the voice of reason. But you forgot one uncontrollable reason for this mess. The QUALITY of life being hired by the airlines is nothing more than a step above dealing with the janitor staff working in/ around the airport (not to put down janitors but they wouldn’t know how the airlines work). How can good customer service, caring or common sense be applied when this is not taught —
    1. In the home.
    2. By the “trainers” at these airlines.

    They just hire people. Period. Many are recent immigrants with poor English – don’t care if I’m politically incorrect because this is the truth. Many are not even high school graduates (10th grade is usually the highest education needed). Training consists of minimal classroom for basic computer inputs – there is no longer anything about how to handle disrupted passengers or irate passengers or even how to exchange or fix the ticket. They are just fobbed off to a telephone number. When (if) they reach someone on the phone they are dealing with the same caliber of misinformed, newly hired, lazy, inconsiderate (just there to collect a paycheck and fly free) individuals.
    How do I know this? Currently I am still working (30+) years for a major airline and have now seen all of this x 1000’s. Airlines are more concerned with being politically correct than hiring people who can think out of the box and actually help people because they want to. No manners, no caring, no consideration, no common sense. Management and Supervisory staff turn a blind eye and have even discouraged us “old-timers” from going the extra mile — “Just give them the 800 number”. Despicable service. If I didn’t know what I know about the industry, I doubt I would ever fly again if I had to rely on what has been hired over the last ten years to help me. Thankfully I have enough inside information to get around the nonsense.

    Paying and flying (traveling) by airlines today should not have to come down to advocates, such as you, to get through all the red tape, inconsistencies, and unfairness to passengers (though we can be grateful that some consumer help is out there).

  8. In years past, when commercial aviation was more comfortable, air travel was beyond the financial reach of many. Only the privileged flew, and the rest of us traveled by railroad and bus. It may well be that comfortable commercial aviation may simply may not be affordable to many. Yet the majority of people who might have in the past traveled by rail or bus now demand to be transported by air, so it may not be surprising to see that “last class” commercial aviation is a cheap service with few amenities, designed for people who in years past would not have been able to afford anything beyond a seat on a Greyhound Lines bus.

  9. The part I find most troubling here is that so many people–I think the vast majority of them–view transportation strictly as a commodity, where the only thing that matters is the price. Just look at all the travel-related websites, all of which provide cost comparison, but virtually none of which provide amenity comparison. And if price is the only criterion for decision-making, then the rational response by carriers is make their service as cheap as possible, removing every non-essential element that constitutes a cost . . . or charging extra for such cost elements. There are people who do view transportation differently, people who value comfort and service and who may be able to balance ticket price against such comfort and service. But there are so few people in that category (or at least knowledgeable people) that the market is too thin for the carriers to really care about this segment, or to compete for this segment’s business. Some frustrated people in this segment think that the government should step in and mandate minimum levels of comfort and service because the market cannot do so (as a result of the commodity nature of transportation). But this would then raise carrier costs, necessitating an overall increase in passenger fares, something that is opposed by the passengers who seek the lowest possible fares . . . and essentially imposing the will of the minority who want comfort and service onto the majority who want to be as cheap as possible. In the end, the government’s role should be limited solely to safety, and service levels and market segmentation should not otherwise be regulated.

  10. I join the others here in saying that you should get what you pay for. If, as seemingly most fliers, want to pay only the lowest possible airfare, then they get what they pay for–a little better on some airlines and a lot worse on others. What amazes me is that when these bottom-end fliers get to their destinations, many of them willingly pay a fortune to go to Disneyland, or happily pay $300+/night for a nice hotel room, or gladly have a $100/person dinner. Many people value the flying experience less than the eating or rooming experience. To each his own. For me and my money, the flight experiences are an important part of my trip, so I am willing to pay for premium economy or business or even first class. If I can’t afford those, then I can’t afford the flight–and like all the things I can’t afford, I don’t buy the flight ticket.

  11. These articles lol always say “seats getting smaller”
    I finally have to say something.
    If you literally and I mean literally take a ruler to any airplane even the small ones you’ll find they are the same size they were back in the 70-80’s when they purchased them.
    At the most they made the galley and lavatory smaller. We know the made the lavs smaller hahaha but how many more seats do you guys think they can “keep” adding without extending the body of the aircraft?

    THE SEATS ARE THE SAME SIZE IF THEY ADDED A ROW IT STILL ISN’T A BIG ENOUGH change to claim they “shrink” everytime you post a new article. You keep implying they keep adding seats but honestly to WHERE? Where are these new seats and rows making the seats SO much smaller every three months.
    It’s impossible they haven’t widened the aircraft frame so unless there are seats floating around outside of the fuselage this is literally impossible. Just saying

    1. Please do some basic research. Seats *ARE* getting smaller. Airlines *ARE* adding in more and more seats. From memory:
      * the seat width used to typically be 19-20 inches but is now 17-18 with some talk of 16
      * seat pitch (leg room) has decreased by *AT LEAST* 2-4 inches (I literally can’t sit in coach on a lot of airlines now)

      Until some regulations are put in place, the airlines will try to cram more and more people into coach.

      1. Oh I know my friend it has gotten smaller than the “original” seating graphs but they act like they take the entire lay out out and replace it with 20 extra seats every 3 months. (Or everytime they post an article about it) which is IMPOSSIBLE they can only add so many without having to enlarge to crafts fuselage. Basic math

    2. So, by your logic, all the planes in existence were made either before I was born or while I was still wearing frilly socks? That’s news to me! Unless you’re claiming that all current aircraft dimensions are exactly the same as they were back then. Which I would be very shocked by also. It doesn’t make any sense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: