Back Page: Down, But Not Out, in Front

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

As world travelers know, flying first-class on U.S. airlines, while far from intolerable, can seem threadbare and forlorn when compared to the service and accommodations that some international flights offer. In “First-Class Struggle” (page 114), Patrick Smith addresses the question of why U.S. airlines’ premium classes are inferior to those of their foreign counterparts and suggests that the fault may lie as much with the customers as with the carriers.

When we last covered this subject, in a July 1995 article titled “First Class Flyers,” Robb Report’s editors and contributing writers sampled a variety of first-class services, and the three that they chose for domestic journeys—Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and Delta Air Lines—fared well. (Alaska Airlines is still in business; Delta filed for Chapter 11 in September 2005; American is the sole major U.S. airline to avoid bankruptcy.) Since then, we have featured many exclusive modes of travel that represent—or eventu­ally might represent—alternatives to flying in a first-class cabin: DayJets’ very-light-jet air taxi services, Eos Airlines’ all-first-class flights, charter services, jet-card programs, fractional ownership, and outright ownership. The latter was the subject of the August 1996 story “High Flyers.” Among the jet owners we profiled in that piece was Tom Redmond, founder of an eponymous hair-care products company in Minneapolis, who explained why he chose to purchase and pilot his own Raytheon Beechjet 400: “For the longest time I thought an airplane was an extravagant perk . . . Now I wouldn’t be without it. If you travel a lot and can afford it, you can’t beat it.”

The ever-increasing popularity of private aviation and the success of low-fare, low-frills carriers such as Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways have prompted speculation that first class is endangered. However, Randy Petersen, who publishes Inside­Flyer magazine and webflyer.com, disagrees. “For the last 100 years, and certainly the last 75, the airline industry has run in cycles, and first class is one of those cycles,” he says. “Two-class [first and coach] service in the U.S. is never going to go away. The reality is, it’s a great bargaining tool, and a great differentiator.”

Indeed, Petersen and Matthew Bennett, publisher of firstclass flyer.com, believe that domestic first class is returning to prominence. Both point out that in August of last year, United Airlines became the first major carrier to offer a first-class cabin on certain regional flights to and from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. In February, United added first-class service on certain regional flights to and from its hubs at Los Angeles International Airport and at Washington Dulles International Airport. Bennett also notes that in May, Delta discontinued Song, its 21⁄2-year-old entry into the low-cost flight market; Delta is reconfiguring the coach-only cabins on Song’s 48 Boeing 757s for two-class service, first and coach, and will begin flying those aircraft on domestic routes this fall.

Bennett also sees signs of vulnerability at the other low-fare airlines. Rising fuel prices caused JetBlue to sustain an unprecedented quarterly loss at the end of 2005, and it continued to lose money in the first quarter of 2006. Fuel costs recently have forced JetBlue and Southwest to raise fares significantly, a move that jeopardizes their very marketplace identities. “It used to be about the price, stupid. Now it’s about the ex­perience,” Bennett says, adding that the experience extends well beyond the confines of the aircraft. “With first class, you can go to the front of the line with airport security. It’s not just a seat. People look at you and don’t scowl.”

While first class may survive into the next decade, Petersen says that it probably will not appear markedly different from what we see today—or from the cabins and amenities that Robb Report’s editors and writers encountered 11 years ago. “I don’t think that in four years the first-class product will look much different than it did in 1990,” he says. “There’s not much that you can do that doesn’t require a major capital investment. I don’t think you’re going to see fancy linens and china, but [domestic first class] will be quite distinctive from coach.” 

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