Have travelers lost the class war?




Whenever an airline introduces new lie-flat seats for its richest customers or makes its “elite” level more elusive by restructuring its loyalty program, as has been happening lately, it sparks a predictable debate about the growing rift between the “haves” and “have-nots” in travel.

Next month, American Airlines will begin flying a new Airbus A321T between New York and San Francisco. It comes with lie-flat seats in the front of the plane and an espresso machine only for first-class customers.

To give members of its Sky Club lounges a “more exclusive experience,” Delta Air Lines in May will start charging a $29 access fee for guests of regular members as a “benefit” of their eligible credit card. Previously, those visits were included in the hefty card price.

Meanwhile, ordinary passengers languish in crowded waiting areas and are wedged into airline seats that seem to shrink between flights. When they complain, they’re often angrily told by disgruntled airline employees that they get what they pay for.

The airline’s highest-spending customers are being lavished with more, while the rest give up their last shred of dignity, such as a humane amount of legroom and seat width or the ability to check a bag without paying extra. If it’s not bolted down in steerage class, there’s a charge for it these days. What’s more, this class conflict is playing itself out across the entire travel industry.

The divide between rich and poor has never been more obvious than in the air. And the airline industry has become quite comfortable with our collective deprivation.

Just ask Alireza Yaghoubi, the chief technology officer at AirGo Design, a company with a clever idea for creating civilized economy-class seats. The technology exists to offer everyone on the plane ample legroom and space to move in coach class. But it would require a significant investment, and he says airlines prefer to sink that money into first-class passengers, who are deemed more valuable.

“Airlines want us to either pay more or go through the same nightmarish experience every time,” says Yaghoubi. “That is a failed strategy which needs to be revised.”

As always, the airline industry is boldly leading the way when it comes to separating the well-heeled from the rest. But make no mistake: The travel industry is following, often enthusiastically. Remember, only a fraction of American travelers fly; the rest drive or use mass transit. Consumer advocate Edward Hasbrouck sees the class war unfolding on the ground in places such as San Francisco, where mass transit can be tedious and unreliable, unless you’re one of the privileged commuters with a ticket on a private express bus.

“There’s a dramatic contrast between waiting for slow, late, overcrowded public transit and the luxury buses, hiding their occupants behind spotless tinted glass, that pick up thousands of moneyed young geeks every day and whisk them off to the Silicon Valley campuses of Google, Facebook and Yahoo,” he says.

Hasbrouck fears a day might come when the class divide will resemble a scene from a dystopian novel. Something like it already exists. In São Paulo, laborers spend hours on overcrowded buses getting to and from work, while the affluent are carried by helicopter from the rooftops of their condo towers to the rooftops of their office towers.

“That,” he adds, “is the most extreme class divide in transportation.”

If you think this sounds like another debate in Washington, you’re not alone. There are several parallels between the discussion about income inequality and inequality for travelers, says Richard Reeves, the policy director for the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families.

No matter the mode of transportation, most travelers understand and accept a class system, or the idea that you can enjoy more amenities, such as a larger room or a more spacious seat, if you pay more. But perhaps a line has been crossed, say experts such as Reeves.

To many travelers, it seems as if those sitting in the front of the plane, staying in the suites, riding the private buses don’t deserve the VIP treatment any more than the rest deserve their misery.

As with the current discussion on income inequality, people become disenchanted when they feel the system is basically unfair.

“That’s when people become much less tolerant,” Reeves says.

Maybe we’re at a tipping point in travel, just as we are with income inequality. The more stratified the travel industry becomes, the further we get from the dignified experience everyone deserves.

In that world, we’d be better off staying home. Let’s not go there.

  • BobChi

    Do you think that in other industries the best and most profitable customers don’t receive elite treatment? The people who receive these perks are generating exponentially more income per person for the company. What’s the point of whining about it? I don’t think most people share the unrestrained envy. I enjoy paying for cheap seats (or not paying when they’re free); others can enjoy the perks that come with paying 10 times as much as I do. I’m sorry you’re miserable when traveling. I enjoy it.

  • Alex

    Here we go again. Why don’t you guys just update your logo with a hammer and sickle and get it over with? Why does this site have such a fetish for class warfare? I swear some of the writers here pen these articles right after they have an upgrade that doesn’t go through.

    Aside from the world’s most premium airlines, first class pales in comparison to what it used to be. The days of caviar and Chateaubriand in the air are long gone. The lie-flat seats and entertainment systems are just a byproduct of technological advances. Domestic US first class today is basically equivalent to the economy class of the last century, albeit with a slightly bigger seat.

    What’s your endgame here anyway? Abolish the first and business cabins in the name of equality?

  • DCTA

    I really want to resist turning this into an argument about “income inequality”. I’m pretty left of center in my politics, but this is kind of crazy.

    First of all, I don’t think we have a “right” to air travel to begin with and fares are fares. Deregulation is playing out just as it was meant to – it is a competitive market (okay, competitive of sorts when we take into account that we have fewer airlines to choose from.) It’s like buying a third tier theater ticket vs. center orchestra.

    I really don’t have a problem with this. Even being a Travel Agent, I buy my air tickets. Sometimes I am lucky enough that I can manage to buy Business or First Class, but always for flights over 2 hours I pay for Premium Economy. There are no free upgrades out there. It simply is what it is. And quite honestly, when I am paying more, I expect “preferred” treatment/service. It isn’t like the airlines are putting coach passengers in steerage and locking them in until all the upper class passengers have a seat in the life boats!

    I mean, really? So what?

  • Alex

    “Income inequality” is [another] manufactured issue from a political party that knows it’s in trouble going into an election year. Nothing more.

  • bodega3


  • steward

    The argument is as old as the TITANTIC.

  • DCTA

    Hey, income inequality exists, I just don’t buy applying all that to airfare. I do believe that if you are able to pay first class (air, hotel, cruise, tour guides, etc.), then more power to you! If that’s how you want to spend your disposable income, please do. I don’t resent people who can do that. I made my choices in life and I now live with the results of those choices. I could’ve gone the other way like some of my extended family and found myself unable to scrape up any disposable income.

  • madtad1

    Regarding helicopter taxis in Sao Paulo: here you are really comparing apples and oranges. SP has some of the worst traffic in the world as it is the largest city in S. America and the 7th largest in the world. Due to a variety of factors it also has a very high crime rate, including frequent car jackings and kidnappings.

    Having visited there and knowing many people who live there, if you can afford a car and it’s a nice car, you generally spend 100% of the car’s value getting it bullet proofed. Thus, many people tend not to drive every day.

    Helitaxis, if you can afford them, get you swiftly and safely from airport to home to office to hotel at a reasonable price without the fear of being stuck for hours in traffic or kidnapped/robbed/murdered. It must be worth it because SP has the largest number of helitaxis in the world; over 440 and counting. Needless to say, many business people consider them a necessary business expense so their company may be paying for it.

  • duvenstedter

    Never mind the inequality of traveling. Prepare for inequality of destinations. In a few decades, the ever-expanding traveling population will bump up against environmental regulations limiting the number of tourists allowed to cram into vacation areas. Then rationing by price will send the expense of traveling to a different part of the world beyond the means of even American middle-class tourists. Vacation for them will return to being “at the lake” or “at the beach”. They will not need to say which lake or beach they mean, because they and their neighbors will all be going to the same local lake or beach. Before ordinary people could afford cars after WWII, they got to the local lake or beach by trolley car or bus. They can do it again.

  • DCTravelAgent

    Can you say “Galapagos”?

  • AKFlyer

    Try living in Alaska and you will soon change your mind about whether air travel is a right. My alternative is a 1800-mile drive on a two-lane road with unpaved segments, through a foreign country, to get to the closest point outside my state in my own country. Not really practical for business trips, especially in winter when the dark snowy highway is poorly maintained and there are no gas stations, restaurants, or motels open for hundreds of miles.

    I’ve lived in 10 US states (including several Eastern locations like Montgomery Co, MD) so I realize its easy for residents of the Lower 48 to forget AK — and HI — exist, but when we’re talking about federal rights, we are all supposed to be equal.

    Besides, some federal courts have already ruled that I have a right to travel by air. That trumps individual citizens’ opinions on the matter.