Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Coach vs. First Class

I read a recent news article on airline rage problems from a source called AFP that included this statement:
Despite common beliefs that it is flight delays, lack of leg room, and a general decline in manners that cause us to lose our cool, researchers from the university of Toronto’s Rotan School of Management and Harvard Business School actually found that it was the presence of a first-class cabin onboard that caused air rage incidents to increase by nearly four times as much, equivalent to the effect of a nine-hour flight delay.

That is the most self serving bit of B.S. I’ve read in a long time.  Even the presidential candidates aren’t that blatant.  I often flew several times a week in my business career, almost always in coach, or on planes with single class service.  I’m retired now, but we fly a few dozen times a year coast to coast and overseas, not often in coach.  So I have a few thoughts on the matter.

There was a time when flying in coach was not an uncomfortable feat of human endurance in which passengers were crammed into as little pace as possible and treated with thinly veiled contempt.  It may not have been as spacious as first class, if there was a first class, but there was room to stretch out a bit.  the person in front might recline a few inches, but it didn’t cause pain and suffering.  Passengers were usually treated as valued customers.  Complementary food of some sort was served if the flight was long enough.  At its best it may have been no better than a bad t.v. dinner, but it was served.  First class was great, but coach was not bad.  Maybe it was not the most cost effective way to run a business, but there wasn’t any in flight rage worthy of a news article.  So what is different now?

I think it has more to do with the obvious difference between generous comfort in first and painful discomfort in coach; between respectful, attentive service in first and contemptuous disrespect in coach.  Some airlines have figured part of that out by offering, for a price, several coach rows with more leg room, but not at the cost of reducing the number of coach seats.  The remainder have been scrunched together just a wee bit more.  I imagine there are corporate psychologists who calculate how much discomfort can be tolerated for how long in the design of seating plans.

Except for Hawaiian, I know of no airline that offers complementary coach meal service on domestic flights, and that’s not so bad.  Those t.v. dinners were never any good.  Some have begun to offer meals for sale that are worth buying.  Others offer disgusting junk food of no nutritional value, but at a hefty price.  A few have begun training flight crews to interact with passengers as if they were valued customers, which they are.  It will help.  But in the end it’s not only about on time performance, bag fees, or meals.  it’s about some degree of comfort for every passenger. 

The airlines’ excuse is twofold.  First, by maximizing passengers per plane they can increase profit margins and keep fares low.  Second, as long as people are willing to buy tickets for flights they know will force them to endure physical and emotional suffering for a few hours, it’s a smart business strategy.  Smart is one thing, moral is another.  The underlying assumption is that the dignity of every human being is irrelevant.  On too many airlines, coach passengers are not treated like cattle, they are cattle.  They are not worthy of proper respect because they have been dehumanized, made into mere commodities to be transported between A and B without causing death or obvious physical injury.  How infuriating is that when one can easily see how well the few passengers in first class are being treated?

Advertising campaigns claiming friendly skies are notwithstanding.  It’s sheer propaganda serving marketing schemes intended to entice willing buyers into an intentionally demeaning experience.  And willing buyers do it, figuring they can give up all control of their lives, endure hours of airport hassle, and tolerate three to six hours of extreme physical discomfort in order to get to wherever they are going.  All of that adds up to simmering rage, and for a few people that rage erupts in inappropriate ways.

The obvious solution is to improve the physical comfort of coach seating, and to treat every passenger with courteous respect.  That might require a ticket price increase reducing passenger load a bit, but I doubt it would affect profits at all.  A small decrease in passengers per plane offset by higher ticket revenues and happier customers – that’s not a bad tradeoff.  Besides, there will always be budget airlines such as Ryanair who are up front about not giving a damn about passenger comfort or convenience.  For a low fare they will jam you in an take you there, and if you don’t like the way you’re treated, tough.




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