Monday, May 3, 2010

On Air Travel And Exclusiveness

On my last international flight, I sat in Delta's BusinessElite section on the 12 hour flight from Atlanta to Tel Aviv and back.   As I made myself comfortable in my seat, the passengers heading back to economy gawked enviously.   Some asked me how I was lucky enough to get to sit in Business class, and I could only respond, "Collect frequent flier miles".

I have often wondered if economy passengers are deliberately paraded past the first and business class sections.  It occurs to me that business class really isn't all that great, unless you compare it economy class.   Delta does have these wonderful lie flat sleeper seats on some aircraft, but they are very narrow and really aren't quite as comfortable as the bunk bed in your average summer camp.   The food was pretty good by airline standards, but if I had paid more than $10 for the very same dinner at a restaurant, I probably would not have returned.    Keep in mind that this is a meal on a flight that sells for $4,000.

Sometimes I read travel blogs in which the author gets to travel in International First Class (usually on miles), on some great airlines.   Take a look at this post from a First Class flight on Cathay Pacific, certainly valued at more than twice my Delta flight.   Here is the steak dinner.
The steak has nice grill marks and decent presentation, but now imagine what your opinion of this plate would be if it were being served on the ground.    You would probably be disappointed had you spent $20 for this meal.   Even at Outback Steakhouse, I would expect a larger cut of beef for $15.  

An airline defender might say that there is only so much one can expect from food at 40,000 feet served by flight attendants.   That would be a reasonable argument, but it can easily be tested by how the same airline treats it's customers on the ground.   Take a look at some of the writers picture's of the First Class lounge from the same trip:

This is average for an airport business lounge.    On the other hand, it is about what I would expect from the lobby of a $79 a night Courtyard Marriott in the suburb of any American City.   If they are trying to impress someone who paid $10,000 for the experience, I think they are probably coming up short again.

My point is not to knock Cathay Pacific.   It looks like their First Class Seat is truly remarkable:

My point is that most of the "elite" features of business and first class aren't really all that great, unless you compare them with economy class travel.   Certainly the meals and the business lounges are hardly worth spending thousands of extra dollars for.  Recently, I have been traveling with my wife an daughter in coach, and found that their petite size allowed me to enjoy far more room in coach than I ever did while traveling solo amongst strangers of all sizes.   So long as the airline has decent legroom, like Southwest, I find coach to be more than adequate for domestic flights.

The other crazy part about business and first class travel is the entire notion of being elite that airlines are marketing.   On my last flight on Delta, boarding was divided between the "Sky Priority" line, and the regular line.    The only difference was one line passed to the left of turnstile, and the other line was on the right before entering the same jetway.    There was also a short, rubberized "red carpet" to add to the feeling of exclusivity that the exalted ones must feel when passing to the left or the right of the turnstile (I forget which side was which).    Such class distinctions sometimes result in shorter lines, but in this instance, it was truly comical.

I have often wondered how airlines continue to sell first and business class seats for several times the price of their coach product.    The answer is that most of the premium cabin is not sold.   It is filled with award seats, upgrades, and plenty of employees and their families.  If you want a reasonable estimate for how an airline values their costs for premium seat compared with coach, consult their award redemption tables.   Here is the Star Alliance award redemption table from US Airways.   Most business class awards are a mere 50% more than coach, with international first class sometimes just barely exceeding twice the coach price.

Yes, I want a reclining sleeper seat for an overnight flight, but we are getting to the point where exclusivity is being marketed as an end in of itself while people are spending good money to be considered Elite by some company. 

That is not a game that I am willing to play with my money.

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