Imperial Class: A progress report

Several months ago, I posted a news release from May 2018 (69 KB PDF) in which the newly consolidated airline DeltaUnited-American announced the end of coach service:

“Coach just got to be more trouble than it’s worth,” explained Capt. O’Leary. “Coach passengers always buy the cheapest fares, but they still expect to be treated like royalty. I tell you, though, did you ever see the coach section of a 777 after a 12-hour flight? And those toilets! Our business class clients complain about even being on the same plane with those people, and who can blame them?”

Slowly but inexorably it is coming to pass. Here are a couple of updates:

  1. “The Incredible Shrinking Plane Seat,” Wall St. J. (paywall)  Similar article non-paywalled at “Flying coach is only going to get worse“:  “Air France recently expanded the premium sections on its 777s while cutting the floor space in economy class. Yet the carrier kept the number of economy seats constant by switching from nine- to 10-abreast in the back, a spokesman said.” Most other airlines are following suit. On a 777, ten-abreast is the way to go,” said Emirates President Tim Clark. “You’d be nuts to do it any other way.” So long as you don’t have to sit back there, I guess. RyanAir CEO Michael O’Leary (no relation to DU-A Capt. Katherine O’Leary) has proposed doing away with seats (and lavatories) altogether, lending new meaning to the phrase “cattle class.”
  2. Think you’re going to escape the stampede by using frequent flyer points to upgrade? Not so fast there, Bossy: “Frequent-Flier Programs Enter an Era of Inflation,” (also the WSJ): “United Airlines will raise the number of frequent-flier miles needed for award tickets in many categories by double-digit percentages on Feb. 1. Standard coach tickets to Hawaii go up 12%; business-class standard awards to Europe increase 20%, and first-class awards on partner airlines climb 63% to Europe and Japan and 87% to the Middle East. Delta, Southwest and Alaska airlines will make similar moves early next year.”

The trend is clear: Coach will continue to shrink in both quantity and quality until it disappears entirely. Airline travel will return to what it originally was, a luxury for those who can afford it. There may be a few all-economy carriers, who pack 12 abreast in hand-me-down 777s, but with the cost of fuel nowadays, the economics of such a venture are challenging.

For the rest of us, there’s FaceTime, cars, and the bus. We could build high speed rail along our densely populated coastlines and a few other routes such as NYC – Chicago and DC-Atlanta, but with roughly 50% of our population believing that anything the government does is evil, you can rule that out for a while.

3 thoughts on “Imperial Class: A progress report

  1. I believe Emirates comments about 10 abreast seating are a reference to the 777X which has smaller ribs that will allow 10 abreast seating with the same seat width as the current 777 has 9 abreast seating. (Smaller aisles too).
    On the one hand, your point is valid, on the other hand, airplane manufacturers and premium airlines like Emirates are studying passenger comfort and technology to improve the quality of flights in the ways that matter most: cabin pressure, humidity, cabin width at eye level, etc.

    • Andrew,

      Thanks. From “Flying coach is only going to get worse”: “American’s existing 777s are configured with nine seats per row in coach. But those planes and the new ones on order will now be outfitted with 10 seats per row.” So it isn’t just the X.

      The data that I have is that the cabin width of the current 777 series is 19 feet 3 inches, while the X variants will be 19 feet 7 inches.

      I take your point about premium service. But Business, First, and presumably Imperial classes get the same cabin pressure, humidity, and cabin width at eye level. And while they do get a couple of more expensive meals, what that extra $3,000 – $5,000 primarily buys them is more space. That’s what’s really important.

  2. Well, the thing is, it all comes down to what society is willing to pay for. We pay for the things that we value. For the average middle class person, it would seem that premium air travel is not one of those things that is considered worth paying for.

    It’s no different than say, consumer goods. People are not willing to pay for goods where the logo is “made in a developed country where people are paid a middle class living wage”. Hence the rise of Wal-Mart, the slow erosion of the middle class, the decline in American manufacturing (non-military anyways), and the other consequences, like the decline of smaller businesses.

    In a way, the US military is like this too. The mentality is that technology is the great advantage and that it has trumped over the human factor. They are willing to pay for high tech, very expensive weapons and systems. What they are not willing to pay for as much as before is training. Hence we have a situation where say, the very expensive F-22 and the amount of training the pilots get – in some cases only 8-10 hours per month. That’s bad because it’s not nearly enough and the more sophisticated the system, the more training is needed. Of course, the mentality is totally incorrect, but again, it goes to show what is valuable to the military.

    I wonder how all of this will affect us as a society. Probably not well in the long run. What are your thoughts, Chet?



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