Aboard Planes, Class Conflict

Email|Print| Text size + By Michelle Higgins
November 25, 2007

OVER the past few years — and this will probably come as no surprise to anyone who has gotten on a plane over this Thanksgiving weekend — flying in coach has become an increasingly miserable experience. Legroom is practically nonexistent. Passengers are more tightly packed together. Hot meals have been eliminated. Ditto pillows and blankets. And the next time that guy in front of you leans his seat back directly into your face, few of your fellow passengers are likely to blame you if you feel a brief, murderous urge to strike back.

All this has created a generation of fliers who now view getting on a plane as roughly akin to entering the ninth circle of hell.

Doug Fesler, an executive at a medical research group in Washington, wasn’t expecting much in the way of amenities on his American Airlines flight to Honolulu in September. In fact, knowing the airline no longer served free meals, he had packed his own lunch for the second leg of his flight from Dallas to Honolulu. But he said he was shocked at the lack of basic services and the overall condition of the cabin.

On that flight, the audio for the movie was broken. The light that indicated when the bathroom was occupied was squirrely, causing confusion and, in some cases, embarrassingly long waits for passengers in need of the lavatory. And though food was available for purchase, it ran out before the flight attendants could serve the entire cabin, leaving some fellow passengers looking longingly at the snack he had packed.

His return flight was just as disappointing. This time the audio for the movie worked — but only in Spanish — and his seat refused to stay in the upright position. “I was just appalled,” Mr. Fesler said. “You pay $500 or $600 for a seat, and you expect it to be functional.” He said he has considered refusing to fly airlines with such poor service, but added that “if you did that with every airline that made you mad, you’d never get anywhere in this country.”

Mr. Fesler is hardly alone in his antipathy toward the airlines, as anyone who has spent time reading the angry customer postings on Web sites like, and knows.

The fact is that airlines, flying so close to full capacity today, have realized that they really don’t have to cater to economy passengers — most of whom are booking on price alone, and who increasingly have no real airline loyalty — because the cost of doing so would never be worth it in pure bottom-line terms.

Does that sound harsh? Well, an unexpected — but not totally surprising — insight into how airline executives think these days came this summer when B. Ben Baldanza, chief executive of the aggressively bare-bones Spirit Airlines, hit “reply all” to an e-mail message from a passenger who wished to be compensated for a delayed flight that caused him to miss a concert he was planning to attend. Mr. Baldanza’s response, which seemed to be intended only for a Spirit Airlines employee but subsequently appeared on multiple travel blogs, said: “Please respond, Pasquale, but we owe him nothing as far as I’m concerned. Let him tell the world how bad we are. He’s never flown us before anyway and will be back when we save him a penny.”

While Mr. Baldanza may regret the manner in which his e-mail statement was delivered, his position hasn’t changed. “The point that I was making in that e-mail, maybe not as politically correctly as I should have, is let’s not over-obsess or spend a lot of money dealing with customers with completely unrealistic expectations,” he said, pointing out that the delay was due to weather and that the passenger was offered a $200 voucher toward future flights even though he had paid only $73 for two round-trip tickets. “When the fare’s this cheap, we’re going to get another customer,” he said.

Thus airlines are increasingly cutting back services in coach or charging passengers for things that used to be free, like meals ($5 for a snack box on United) or drinks ($2 for a 16-fluid-ounce bottle of water on Spirit) or, in the case of Delta, US Airways, Northwest and Continental, starting to use narrow-body planes more frequently on trans-Atlantic flights, making those long-haul flights more cost-effective, albeit at the expense of passenger comfort.

It’s all simple economics. In January, United removed half-ounce pretzel snack mixes from the economy section of flights that are less than two hours long, about 29 percent of its flights, to save what it says is about $650,000 a year. (Cutting out pretzels has reportedly saved Northwest $2 million a year.) Meanwhile, American has estimated that it would save $30 million a year by eliminating free meal service in coach. Last September, in a move that extinguished any hope of hot meals returning to coach, the airline removed the rear galleys — including the oven — from its MD-80 aircraft and replaced them with four seats. That change, the airline told The Washington Post, will be worth an additional $34 million a year. Overall, the amount of money the nine largest passenger carriers in the United States spend on food per passenger has been slashed to about $3.40 from $5.92 in 1992, according to the Department of Transportation.

And wonder why it’s almost impossible to get a pillow anymore? Again, it comes down to money. American has said it saved $300,000 when it removed pillows from its MD-80s in November 2004. In February 2005 it began removing pillows from 737s, 757s and Airbus 300s on nearly all flights within the continental United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico, with the airline explaining that the change saved it $600,000.

The story is much different in the front of the plane — and it’s not just things like the four-course meal (served on china, with real utensils, and with a choice of four wines) that American now serves its business-class passengers on overseas flights and the fact that, yes, a pillow and a blanket still await you.

Passengers flying business class on United from Washington Dulles to Frankfurt, for example, are now offered “180-degree lie-flat” seats. The upgraded seats, which are part of a multimillion-dollar makeover of its international premium cabins, transform into 6-foot-4-inch beds and feature larger personal TV screens, iPod adapters and noise-canceling headphones. Delta Air Lines and American are also upgrading their upper-class cabins on international flights with such features as wider, bedlike seats, improved in-flight entertainment, and new food options. And Delta and United have turned to celebrity chefs — Michelle Bernstein for Delta and Charlie Trotter for United — to create menus for its business- and first-class customers.

Of course, the airlines insist they have not completely abandoned the economy segment of the market. In fact, Delta and Continental are making their commitment to the average passenger the signature element of their new ad campaigns, with Delta adding individual television screens on all its coast-to-coast flights among other things and Continental rolling out video-on-demand systems on its trans-Atlantic flights. “We do a lot of work up front, but not at the expense of the back of the cabin,” said Eric Kleiman, the director of product marketing for Continental.

And some low-cost carriers are flying newer planes with better amenities like sleek leather seats, satellite television for each passenger and even, as in the case of JetBlue, removing seats to add legroom in coach.

Airlines insist they want to please all their passengers, but concede that it all comes down to the bottom line. “We certainly provide a great deal of attention to passengers willing to pay the premium price,” said Charley Wilson, managing director for external communications at American. “We want to make sure that a passenger had a first-rate customer experience. The passenger who is buying a ticket from us based on price sensitivity — we also want to make sure they have a comfortable flight. But the way we chiefly derive a profit from any given flight is the passenger willing to pay the premium.”

United says just 8 percent of its customers — the ones paying a premium for first and business class — generate 36 percent of passenger revenue. That’s why it is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade its first- and business-class cabins with lie-flat seating and other amenities across its entire international fleet of wide-body aircraft.

Industry analysts say that most airlines have rightly decided that it makes little economic sense to provide expensive perks to customers paying the lowest fares.

“With the spread of low-cost airlines,” said Philip Baggaley, senior airline credit analyst at Standard & Poor’s, most of the major carriers “have come to the conclusion that they’re not able to get a higher fare for offering added service.”

In fact, one much-touted effort to make the flying experience a more comfortable one for economy passengers — American’s 2000 experiment of taking two rows out of coach to create some extra legroom among the remaining seats — was dismantled three years later, and the rows returned to the cabin. The extra room just didn’t pay off financially.

“The environment changed, and customers were very attentive to how much a fare cost,” said Lauri Curtis, American’s vice president for onboard service. A product that “no one was willing to pay for,” she said, “doesn’t make sense.”

THE ever-yawning gap between the coach and the business- and first-class experience is perhaps nowhere more noticeable than on international flights, where United States carriers are scrambling to keep pace with well-regarded airlines like Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways and Emirates Airline, as well as fend off the competition from low-cost business-class carriers like Eos and MaxJet, which offer fares often less than those of the standard carriers.

It’s both a push and pull situation in that the international markets are more attractive,” Mr. Baggaley said. “They’re growing more quickly. The airlines often have more pricing power on those routes because there are fewer competitors.”

All of this restructuring has helped airlines make money again, even in the face of soaring fuel prices. After losing a cumulative $35 billion between 2001 and 2005, United States airlines recorded their first profitable year of the millennium in 2006, according to the Air Transport Association, when the industry posted a $3 billion net profit. This year, the association projects earnings to be in the $5 billion range.

Of course, knowing that the airline you’ve just flown is more financially solvent is not much consolation when you realize your luggage hasn’t arrived with you or after you almost got into a fistfight with the passenger next to you because neither would yield the armrest.

“There is no question the cattle-class experience has contributed to the rise and intensity of air rage incidents all over the world,” said Andrew Robert Thomas, an assistant professor of business at the University of Akron, who has written books about air rage and maintains the Web site

“More people in a smaller space experiencing a naturally stressful environment will trigger different reactions in some folks, and a number will be violent,” he added. “With the cutbacks continuing and the number of air travelers projected to triple in the next 20 years, air rage will be a problem for the foreseeable future.”

The airlines do acknowledge that while their finances have improved, they must do a better job of convincing the average traveler that they understand that these savings have come at a cost to the customer experience.

“We recognize we have missed some opportunities in the last couple of years to do the right thing from the customer experience, as we have tried to save our company financially,” said Mark Mitchell, managing director of customer experience, a newly created position at American. “We have fallen off, especially in the last 18 to 24 months.” He said he was hired to “work on the broken pieces of our airline,” including how American handles delays, the boarding process, cabin cleaning, baggage handling and flight attendant interactions with customers.

Some passengers seem to feel that the airlines should just acknowledge that the flying experience is no longer a glamorous or, at times, even tolerable one — especially back in coach — and that it’s something passengers are going to have to accept.

“I actually have more respect for Southwest Airlines in this area,” said Julie Hurwitz, an executive assistant from Los Angeles, referring to that historically no-frills airline. “They’ve never pretended to have more than they do.”

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