Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Flying First Class

The New York Times recently featured an article on the transformation of first class air travel, especially on overseas flights, from roomier, more comfortable seats and better food, to the luxury of flat beds, privacy screens and an over abundance of service.  I have no problem with that, and have enjoyed several flights up front with grateful thanksgiving for the ability to do so.  
What does trouble me is the other end of the plane, especially on domestic flights, where every effort has been made to stuff as many passengers as possible into the smallest tolerable space while removing any sign of hospitality.  I see no reason to treat people like animals, stripping them of almost all dignity.  I’ve heard the arguments about maximizing seat mile revenues while pleading corporate poverty and find them wanting.  One airline marketing VP was cited as saying that coach travelers were only interested in the lowest fare, and creature comforts are costs that can be shaved to keep fares low.  There may be some truth to that, but for many travelers that cheap fare is dear.  Money for it has been saved up for a long time, or it’s been financed by credit card debt that will be paid off over many months at high interest.    Dehumanizing one's customers with utter contempt for their well being may be a plan for profit but it is immoral, and I cannot help but believe that there is a better way.  
A few airlines have made modest accommodations for their coach passengers.  Hawaiian serves a well prepared complementary hot meal between the mainland and Hawaii.  Alaska offers meals for sale that appear to be nutritious, as opposed to the fat, carb and salt mix of processed junk food sold on some other airlines. We flew coach on EVA to Taipei a few months ago.  The seats were comfortable.  There was enough room between rows to recline a bit without slamming into the person behind.  Food and drinks were more than adequate.  The same cannot be said for many American airlines on international routes, and domestic flying in coach is simply a painful experience to be endured with as much tolerance as possible.  
I’m always struck by the quarterly news reports on airline performance and customer satisfaction.  The criteria are limited to on time takeoffs and landings and how much luggage is lost.  I’ve been on the receiving end of those questionnaires.  Not a single sign of interest in whether my seat was comfortable, was there enough room between me and the guy in front of me, was food or drink of reasonable quality offered at a reasonable price, was I treated like a valued customer or a cow on the way to slaughter.
I don’t imagine that much can be done about it.  Airlines have proved, at least to themselves, that they can be successful without paying much attention to customer comfort, except in first class.  They deal with declining passenger numbers by reducing fleet size and making remaining planes as spartan as possible for the majority of their occupants.  I’m not sure how that can contribute to long term growth in passenger numbers.  As for me, I remain grateful for the ability to fly up front whenever I want to but resent the corporate thinking that makes it so hard for everyone else.   

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