Is it time to eliminate first class?

This morning’s USA Today column about entitled travelers is whipping up a little turbulence.

I don’t mind. In the story, I point out the obvious fact that the class divide has become too wide and something needs to be done. Entitled travelers are ruining it for the rest of us.

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But am I advocating for the removal of first class? Well, that’s an interesting question. Maybe I am.

I’m on record as being a progressive consumer advocate with populist leanings, so I don’t mind being called a “socialist” or even an “idiot” as I have by a barrage of emails in the last 24 hours.

Here’s a small sampling of the insults:

“Socialist education proves true,” quipped Mark Stumpf. “Well, I guess your teachers would be proud. They have convinced you that we are all equal and everyone should be treated that way. There is nothing further from the truth.”

“It’s the new ‘We are all global citizens’ attitude that is being taught from elementary school through university now,” sniffed Tracey Chance. “No one is better than another. All countries are equal. The word exceptional has no place because one person or country cannot be better than another. Working hard and therefore earning more money than someone else really isn’t fair.”

Chance accused me of being a “communist.”

“We didn’t create the game,” wrote Richard Whittington. “The airlines did and I do feel that like anything else, if I pay for a different level of service why shouldn’t I expect it?”

Alright, fun comments. I read them all. That’s enough entertainment for today.

By the way, advocating for a reasonable amount of personal space and basic amenities is neither a socialist or a communist value. It’s the right thing to do.

You know, the interesting thing about the article was that first class passengers thought it was about them. It wasn’t; it was about obnoxious travelers. By firing off angry emails to me, they only proved that they were in the latter category.

Of course, there were some supportive messages.

“Thanks so much for your article today on entitled travelers,” wrote Suzanne Morris. “I really dread flying in today’s caste system of air travel. Though I may not pay top dollar for first class, the ticket can be expensive and basic courtesy and comfort should be required.”

Some readers actually got the point of the story. Dennis Tarantino is among them:

I travel quite a bit for leisure. Yes, we have had our status with an airline for many years, and sometimes we do get a free upgrade. However, we usually buy first class on longer trips.

I have noticed over the years that many business travelers are becoming more and more obnoxious. They think nothing of cutting in line, acting rudely to the airplane staff, and other travelers.

The sad part is they are usually not paying for their trip (usually footed by the company). They believe they can pretty much do anything they wish on a plane because they are such great customers.

We have really gotten sick and tired of these types of flyers and wish they were made to pay for their own travel. Maybe they would sing a different tune.

Yes, maybe.

It might interest you to know why I wrote about this topic. A flight attendant for a major airline contacted me to say he’d had enough of the “silver spoon” passengers who were stepping all over themselves for a first class seat. I interviewed him, and numerous colleagues, before I started writing my commentary.

But back to the question: Would we be better off without first class? I believe the answer is “yes.” A caste-less inflight system would eliminate a lot of the friction on the plane and restore basic dignity to an important mode of transportation. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Am I advocating for the removal of first class? Well, not exactly.

If an airline wants to sell bigger seats at a 10x markup, I guess that’s fine. But don’t take so much room and amenities away from the people in the back that it makes the flying experience inhumane for them. (One reader referred to steerage class as a “concentration camp” in the skies this morning — I’ve never heard that comparison, but it certainly illustrates the level of disgust.)

But who cares what I think? I’m more interested in your thoughts.

Should we pull the plug on the premium seats? Or do we let Darwinism take its inevitable course on the plane?

Should we eliminate first class sections on planes?

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37 thoughts on “Is it time to eliminate first class?

  1. I am not up for ad hominem insults about this piece. That said, this is a great example where anecdotes are far more powerful than statistics. Ie, do you really believe that per capita, frequent travelers cause more trouble than less than frequent travelers? You gave a few sweet (and funny) anecdotes, but I just don’t think that this is the case…

  2. Bad passenger behavior happens in all cabins today, so I see no connection between anecdotes of bad behavior in First (I’m surprised you didn’t cite the iconic Finneran incident!) and the question of whether F should still exist.

    People willing to pay a lot for a premium experience are ‘early adopters’ who in many cases test innovations that will if they prove popular enough filter down to Economy. What they are willing to pay may not be our idea of what we ourselves are willing to pay, but I don’t see their choice as somehow making it worse for the rest of us.

  3. Way back in 1989, there was a television program, A Very British Coup, about a far-left Labour leader who became Prime Minister. He was interviewed at one point, and asked, “Are you in favour of eliminating first class?” and he responded: “No, I am for eliminating second class. Everyone is first class in my opinion.”

    We should eliminate the steerage seating on aircraft, and bring in better seats and a better class of service for all passengers — not eliminate that option for those who can afford it.

  4. Airlines have been spending lots of money on their first class cabins – they are hardly going to do away with them. Everyone has a choice and it should probably stay that way.

  5. “bigger seats at a 10x markup”

    On some routes, where you get roughly 10 economy seats’ worth of space, maybe.

    On the other hand, I’ve recently made the choice to fly in (and pay for) first class on U.S.- and Caribbean-bound flights. The increase was closer to 35%, not 1000%, and was well worth it.

  6. I think the problem comes down to taking from the Serfs to cater to the Lords. The problem is that there is a finite amount of space on a plane, and it’s ability to carry passenger resources is limited. So anything ‘extra’ for the Lords is necessarily taken from Serfs. You can’t give bigger lay-flat seats to the Lords without taking space from the Serfs.

    It’s about fairness, balance and just creating a decent climate for the Serfs. As a capitalist, I think those that pay more should get more. But there’s a limit before the suffering of the Serfs becomes problematic. And we’re way past that point.

  7. I don’t have an opinion either way on this one, but here’s my question… why did some of the most socialist countries in the world always have separate classes on their national airlines, even during the days when the Communist world was supposedly fully functional? I’m talking most specifically about Cubana, the national airline of Cuba, and Air Koryo, the national airline of the Peoples Democratic Republic of Korea. Don’t remember if Aeroflot had separate classes during Soviet times or not, but I am absolutely certain about Cubana and Air Koryo. The concept to me seems to go totally against the socialist ideologies.

    1. and yes, Aeroflot had at least two classes on most planes. i remember as they put most of the smokers in the back and getting close to first helped with this.
      But as we know well from animal farm (ie communism)–all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others…

        1. yep, when we see Putin in a public hospital, Xi’s kids in public school, and Kim Jong-Un sitting in a middle seat, i will be impressed.

      1. How about seeing the President’s kids in PUBLIC SCHOOLS?
        OR- How about Congress making laws from which they are not exempt?

    2. My recent flight from SVO (Moscow) to VOG (Volgograd) was on a single-class aircraft.

      International flights serving capitalist countries probably went multi-class to increase transfer of assets to the Soviet Union. When I visited East Berlin in the 1980’s, one was required to exchange a certain amount of western currency to East German marks, even if one had no intention to spend that money.

      1. that said, there are plenty of single class flights between us and Canada, within Canada, and even within US. It all depends on what the optimal seating is for maximizing profit for the provider.

  8. While I agree with many of your assertions about those passengers who feel entitled, you can find these folks everywhere. We see them on cruises, at Disney destinations, at the grocery store, in the movie theatre, you name it, they are there. And while it infuriates one, there is a real need for first class seating on a plane.

    Here is why: Both my husband and I are disabled. He has had over 80 surgeries in is lifetime of 51 years! I have had less, but need both knees REPLACED in the near future due to advanced arthritis. I also have had a disk replacement surgery in my back We do not book first-class for any other amenity than more legroom. Most of the time I sleep through meals, (some would that is wise to do!), I never watch the movies they offer, (I prefer to read on a plane) and we do not EXPECT special treatment. The only special treatment we ask for is more time boarding, because I need a wheelchair to get up and down the jetway and we are always apologizing to the other passengers when we clog the jetway with our slow moving wheelchair. If there are people who must make a connection, we wait for them to disembark first.

    I think it comes from a different source than the airlines treating you special. It comes from basic upbringing and common sense. My parents would be appalled if I ever treated anyone with less respect than I ask for. I was raised to have manners and to treat everyone with respect and to not feel like I am better than anyone else I was taught MANNERS, something that is getting scarcer and scarcer these days. Common sense isn’t common anymore.

    We pay a higher price for the seats with more room because we HAVE to have more room due to disabilities. If they did not offer the more roomy seating, I do not know what we would do about travelling, probably take the train and yes, we would book the bedroom, not coach. There would be no way we could travel from one coast to another, sitting the whole way which takes several days. We would need a week to recover from the pain of being cramped into a small space with our disabilities, my husband being 6ft, 2 in. And I am 6 ft tall. And, so it goes the same for travelling coach in an airplane. We HAVE flown coach, early in our travels together. It was a nightmare of pain for us for days after. We know our limitations.

    We gladly pay for first class when we book. We would NEVER expect to be upgraded. Those people who get on an upgrade list with the expectation of getting a first class seat without paying more for it are spoiled and the airlines would be within their rights to offer the upgraded seat IF the passenger is willing to pay the extra $$ for it. That would solve the whining entitled. We pay the high cost of the seat, why should someone who waits til the last minute who gets on a list not have to pay the difference if they are upgraded to a better seat? That would be the fair way to do it anyway! Then see how many folks rush to get on that upgrade list….

    So, while I agree with you on some issues, there is a realistic need for those roomier seats with more legroom. Even with the little bit more room, we still spend a good part of the next couple days in more pain and stiffness in our joints.

    What needs to be changed are people’s attitudes. And that is not going to happen in all cases. Some of these folks may learn to be more humble, by having to, by becoming disabled or having someone they love become disabled, but even some of those might get more entitled feeling…because now they have an excuse.

    There will always be those who feel entitled, whether it is on an airplane, waiting in a waffle line, or grocery shopping. Parents MUST teach manners and the Golden Rule when their children are young, so they get it. Maybe we, who are from a different generation are dinosaurs, but there is no excuse for rudeness.

    Unfortunately, there will always be those who expect something for nothing, or feel they are entitled to more. It is just the way some people are. We feel blessed just to be able to travel with our disabilities these days and the fact that more venues and destinations are doing more to make it possible for the disabled to travel is a true blessing. Otherwise, the alternative would be to stay home.

    Thanks for a very interesting read today. I follow your blog and always read your travel column in the newspaper on Monday. Very interesting topic….

    1. WAIT, WAIT, do you mean that I can’t have that two-bedroom suite with a Veranda for $600.00/PPDO on my next cruise?
      How un-Marxist of you!

  9. Does this mean Christopher won’t be advocating for first class passengers in the future? Not long back I recall a column where he said he advocated for all consumers, even in cases when he thought they were wrong or being less than truthful. But only if they’re flying coach?

  10. I have the same perspective. But what percentage of business/first class seats are actual revenue seats versus non-revenue upgrades?

  11. Socialist or Idiot? How about Communist then? What a choice! You do have the most amazing readers, Chris. I suppose there is a small segment of the population in the front of the plane who finds it a special experience. Some of the rest of us are there because we don’t fit in a coach seat. Being physically crammed into a small space is not good for your health, not to mention your temper. First/Biz class does not need to be eliminated, but at least 4 rows of coach seats do!

    1. American tried that a number of years ago but, to try to maintain a level of profitability, cost went up a few dollars. People didn’t accept it and they replaced the lost seats within months. People want comfort but are not willing to pay for it (F notwithstanding).

        1. True. And Delta has their Economy Comfort, and American their Main Cabin Extra. These “premium economy” seats are generally a small percentage of the cabin and yet even then some of those seats go unsold. (But they make a nice upgrade option for elites.)

    2. ALSO not good for you when you must arrive rested and UN-rumpled for a big business deal. Maybe one where you earn enough that you no longer mind paying for Business or 1st Class! Underline the word EARN.

  12. If that is true, how come the airlines that have all economy seating seem to be able to do it at the same price or lower than the legacy airlines. Although I am not advocating getting rid of business or first class, I would suggest that it pads the pockets of the airline rather than make the cheap seats less expensive.

    1. The extra cost of 1st and business now subsidizes the other extras those passengers enjoy more than economy tickets. Things like the airport clubs and the after flight arrivals lounges with showers.

      Also, the economy-seat-only airlines mostly have a lower cost of operation by having newer more efficient planes, less layers of management to pay, flying into lower cost airports, and so on.

      1. Actually, the biggest savings is having one type of plane. That limits the number of support staff and the amount of training needed. The perfect example is Southwest, whose fleet is 695 Boeing 737’s. And that’s it.

  13. I agree with you. It has almost nothing to do with what class you are booked in. The airlines need to enforce the carry on rules especially. My bags comply. I expect everyone else’s to also. I notice most flight attendants seem to have more baggage in the cabin too! If a flight attendant flying on a one or two night business trip can’t get everything they need into a carry on, what’s going on? An explanation would be appreciated.

  14. “Loyalty program fanblogs then reinforce the dangerous idea that your elite status doesn’t just mean you deserve to be treated better than everyone else but that you are better.”

    Chris – I took issue with this as many of those “fanboy” blogs try to make elite perks and status available to more people. They too are on the side of the passenger, just view things differently than you. But for someone who wishes there were fewer trolls on his site, this statement read a lot like those you hate when people call you a communist.

  15. I am a weekly business traveller and a reader of this and other blogs. I try to be a humble traveller. I find a lot of higher status people are friendly, calm, and polite. They are on the road too much to be obnoxious and have enough experience to roll with delays and attitudes.
    It is ironically, the lower level elites who seem to take it too far as they “know just enough to be dangerous” and with the outrageous number of elites these days, they rarely get the promised perks so they can get a bit snippy.
    I think when people travel, stress is just higher so everyone is more tense. We all need to breathe and learn to coexist. For people who travel regularly and spend lots of money, they deserve faster and better experience. For those who travel infrequently, they deserve higher touch, more empathetic interactions.

  16. I’ve never seen the bad behavior being reported here. The irresponsbile behavior of a couple of entitled fools doesn’t mean that everyone in first class behaves badly. Furthermore there are plenty of entitled economy class travelers too. As for the comment that there are trillions of unusable miles, I have credit cards that earn miles and I’ve always been able to use them. Of course if the flights happen to be full, then you can’t use them, on the other hand that’s also the case if you want to buy a ticket on a full flight.

  17. GAG ME, SHOOT ME, Tie me up & toss me off a bridge. Did ANYONE EVER read Animal Farm? “Everyone’s equal, but some are more equal than others.”

    I can still see the rather over-dressed (even for 1988) and over coiffed passenger on Southwest in San Diego who asked if she could have an upgrade to First Class, standing at the adjacent agent to mine. The agents exchanged knowing glances and I was about to say something when the agent told her, “Of course, we’ve already done that for YOU.”

  18. Eliminating first class would not improve things for economy class passengers but would make things worse. The fares charged for first class are proportionally higher than the extra space and service they receive. Yes, some of that is offset by frequent flyers getting upgrades, but overall, first class subsidizes those in the back.

  19. If you eliminate first class by treating every passenger as if they are in first class, with meals, drinks, entertainment, etc., then I am definitely for it.

  20. I need extra space when I travel, which is why I fly first class whenever I can. I don’t drink, so the complimentary beverages don’t mean anything to me. The food is gross, similar to what used to be on offer in economy before they stopped serving food, so I’m not in it for the food. For me, it’s all about the space. I need personal space when I fly, and being a heavy person, first class is often the best choice for me over buying 2 coach seats. I do enjoy how much more pleasant the service is in that cabin. What I think needs to happen is that service and amenities in coach needs to be improved. Also, the comfort needs to be improved. With the exception of Virgin America, I haven’t had a comfortable coach domestic flight in years, even when I purchase 2 seats because the legroom is so poor. I don’t think taking away 1st class is the answer, I think improving coach is. No doubt, there are going to be whiny jerks complaining about upgrades. That waffle brawl story made me cringe. I think that’s something to do more with today’s society than anything else. So please, don’t take my first class option away. But coach has to be made better, and if it takes REGULATION to do so, them I’m all for it.

  21. I do like it when I have the rare (extremely rare, there were about 17 years between the last two times I flew first class) opportunity to be in first class. However…I am quiet, polite, and don’t ask for a thing. I read my book, drink my offered soda, eat my offered snack, and try to take a nap. If the rules for first class were more similar to the quiet car on a train, I don’t think people would be so upset about having to deal with first class passengers. On the other hand, I would be more than willing to give up some of the extra leg room in first class so that I can be more comfortable when it’s too expensive to fly first class (which is 99% of the time).

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