Business travelers try to escape crammed economy class
Most airlines are quietly hoping that poor conditions in standard coach, where legroom is often reduced as seats are added, will motivate more business travelers to buy their way out of the sardine can.
The New York Times
Bill Catlette gave himself a treat on his last birthday. No more flying in coach.
"It was a present from me to me on my 60th birthday," he said. "I said, look, I've done this for 40 years and it's not getting any more fun. My back hurt, and a lot of it had to do with traveling and being jammed into tight spaces for long periods of time. I decided life is too short. I'm just not going to do it anymore. And I have not been in a coach seat any time this year."
Along with his partner and co-author Richard Hadden, Catlette runs a leadership training and consulting company called Contented Cow Partners. He has logged more than 3 million lifetime miles with one airline alone and is accustomed to spending 100 nights a year away from his home near Memphis, Tenn.
His reason for abandoning coach is simple: "Coach-class travel has become increasingly awful."
You might think airlines would cringe to hear that, but they don't, not really. Most airlines are quietly hoping that poor conditions in standard coach, where legroom is often reduced as seats are added, will motivate more business travelers to buy their way out of the sardine can.
Many airlines now offer the option of extra space with premium economy seats on international and, increasingly, on domestic flights. These seats are 2 to 3 inches wider, with 5 to 7 extra inches of legroom. The cost is 35 to 85 percent more than basic coach, says SeatGuru.com, which offers detailed comparisons of airline seats.
As they promote premium coach seats, some domestic airlines are also quietly discounting first-class seats on some flights. I flew last month on American Airlines from La Guardia Airport in New York to Tucson, Ariz., with a connection through Dallas.
The one-way fare was cheap, $140.60. But when I checked in, I was given the option of upgrading to first class, for an extra $135, on the New York-to-Dallas leg. That meant I was served lunch (which was excellent), and got priority boarding and extra space. So I went for it. (Really, boss, it was for research.) And the cheapest comparable United one-way coach fare on that route available Monday (for travel this week) was $402 (or $899 in first class).
Of course, an airline discounting some unsold first-class seats also suggests that those seats may not be as readily available to lower-level elite-status members who used to get them free, via upgrades. Meanwhile, airlines are able to squeeze a little extra revenue from fliers like me who would never consider opting for a full-fare first-class ticket.
"I see with Delta, sometimes the fare difference between first and coach is not that much, certainly not as much as it used to be," said Catlette, who flies mostly on Delta out of Memphis. "I've seen cases where for a trip to New York from Memphis, the cheapest round-trip coach fare is $900, but for $1,100 you can ride in first class."
How do consulting and speaking-engagement clients react to Catlette's refusal to fly coach anymore? In most cases, he said, clients are not asked to pay for first-class tickets but rather to just cover the cost of "upgradable coach." That refers typically to full-fare coach tickets (as opposed to cheaper nonrefundable coach fares) that usually ensure an upgrade to first for customers, like Catlette, who also have high elite status on the airline.
Even on international flights, the airlines seem to be hoping that the discomforts of basic coach travel will encourage more business travelers to pay more for a better seat.
"No doubt about it, they are making travel so miserable that we will be tempted to pay for a few more inches," said Michael Johnson, an international business traveler who recently flew from Boston to Paris in Air France's Voyageur basic coach — where the cheap seats have a scant 32 inches of legroom and are in eight-across rows.
"It was the worst flight ever," Johnson said. "As we were finally airborne, the Frenchman in the seat ahead of me decided to take a nap. He pushed his seat back to the maximum, blocking my reading light and squeezing me so hard that my knees were bruised."
Air France, like many airlines, is eager to offer you a way to avoid the squeeze. When you book a standard coach fare online, a screen pops up suggesting, "Choose Premium Voyageur" and "you receive 40 percent more space."
It'll cost you, though. A round-trip New York-to-Paris ticket on Air France this week with return next week was $2,651 in Voyageur basic coach, versus $4,194 in Premium Voyageur. That is cheap, though, compared with first class — $15,907 for the same itinerary. Of course, companies receive discounts in exchange for a guaranteed amount of business with the airline, and fares are usually cheaper if they are booked well in advance.
As to first class on a domestic flight, I had a note of caution in an email last week from a business traveler who gave no name.
The reader had just flown from Washington to Chicago on United Airlines.
"Got a complimentary upgrade to first," the email said. "We were given a beverage and a bag of chips. That's it. (I assume they walked through economy and slapped people.) It's getting bad up front, too."