On one level I’m honored that View from the Wing has written a nearly 1,000 word retort of my post from the other day complaining about a NY Times article bemoaning the state of first class travel. On another more accurate level (with my apologies to the Simpsons), I’m going to defend my original piece.
I’ll start with where Gary says I think “domestic first class is fabulous.” I think I’ve made it more than clear that I don’t have much respect for business/first class domestically or internationally (see this post titled, “I am going to respectfully disagree with those who have a first class seat fetish” in which I note how every supposed great thing about international first class is simply a lesser version of something we get every day.
Gary then says that Joe Brancatelli (who is always quoted in this type of article) makes more sense than I do when he says, “You go into first class because it’s less horrible than coach.”
In fact, I completely agree with Joe, as I said in that same post above: “I think the issue is this: Premium class is basically defined by what it is not; it is not coach.”
If our whole disagreement comes down to the fact that airlines used to serve steak for lunch (Gary writes: “there’s little question that domestic first class isn’t the experience it was even a dozen years ago, it was a regular occurrence then to get steak for lunch in a domestic cabin as part of multi-course service on a transcon.”), then fine. You’re correct: first class domestic meals are, for the most part, smaller than they were in the past.
But steak for lunch on a plane? Do people even want that anymore? Didn’t we spend 50 years complaining about how bad airline food was, and now we’re complaining that it’s gone? Take a look at this photo from AirlineMeals.net of a first class meal from 1959. That’s what you’re remembering as being the best thing you’ve ever eaten. Let’s be real – larger servings of bad food was not a good thing.
Gary thinks I missed the point of the article, which is that first class isn’t what it once was. Which is true. But I’m saying that in many important ways, it’s better. Did they reduce the quality of towels to wipe your face? Yes. Did they shrink or eliminate pillows from 2 hour flights? Yes. Did they change or eliminate food that we thought was horrible to begin with? Absolutely. But we’re left with the same larger seat we had 20 years ago. Only now we can relax in that seat, watch television, choose from a bunch of good restaurants to buy our meal from in my airport terminals, go online, or read every book we own on a Kindle. That’s a tradeoff I’d take any day. The article (and Gary) are suggesting that that’s a change for the worse. I put basically no value on the other things, and a ton of value on the fact that I CAN ACTUALLY GET UPGRADED AND SIT IN FIRST CLASS, crappy towel or not.
Neither of us touched on this, but I think the other major thing driving the change in domestic first class is that there are very few widebodies plying the domestic skies. Where once Delta flew 747s between Detroit and Atlanta (and therefore had much more space to provide this mythical amazing service) virtually all non-transcon traffic is narrowbody (and most transcon traffic, too). First class cabins feel more cramped than they used to because they are. Widebodies were flying all over the US (including that Detroit-Atlanta service) in the 1970s, and first class felt more open and spacious (because it was). Those days are gone.
As I said the first time — I’ll take my first class upgrade, watch television, enjoy my sandwich from Au Bon Pain, and not miss the olden days where I stared at the seatback in front of me for 3 hours.