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Airline fare classes: Everything you need to know

April 14, 2012

Even at 30,000 feet, the rich are getting richer when it comes to airline class.

Even before they board their flights, people are acutely aware of the haves and have-nots of air travel. On a recent long-haul domestic airline flight (after waiting for platinum, silver, gold, and bronze to board), I sat down in my assigned middle seat in a row directly behind first class.

My view was neither window nor aisle. Instead, it was an unobstructed look at the ample space between the two extra-wide seats in front of me. In fact, if I had dared extend my legs, I might have toppled the wine glass of the passenger seated there and disabled his private in-flight entertainment system. Even though his first-class seat fell short in terms of privacy, I immediately contracted an acute case of seat envy that lasted the rest of the flight.

You are where you sit

Cabin classes — which can include first class, business, and coach (also called economy) — are generally differentiated by space, privacy, and personal service. But these categories can be murky. Some airlines offer only business and coach, having phased out first class. Adding to the confusion, when it comes to domestic travel outside the United States, the term first class (as opposed to business class) is rarely used. More recently, the term premium economy has been added to the mix.

Seat size is one of the most common benchmarks associated with cabin class. According to SeatGuru.com, a website that maintains a database of the pitch (legroom), width, and comfort of seats on most planes, the average pitch of economy class seats ranges from 28 to 36 inches, while the pitch of first-class seats ranges from 42 to 100 inches. In terms of seat width, economy seats range from just above 16 to 19 inches, while first-class seats range from 19 to 36 inches.

Long-haul (international) business class generally provides seating with twice the pitch and width of economy seats. Premium economy, a separate and growing class of economy seating, offers about 5 to 7 inches of pitch over economy, about 1 to 2 extra inches of seat width, and 2 to 3 extra inches of seat recline. (SeatGuru provides helpful comparison seating charts by class, divided by short hauls and long hauls, and sorted by individual airlines.)

First-class trends

First-class seats are scarce. ‘‘If we are talking about true inter national first-class products, including flat-bed seating, premium dining, and separate cabins, we’re likely talking about less than 2 percent of all seats worldwide being first class,’’ says Andrew Wong, a spokesman for SeatGuru.com. ‘‘The products currently being offered are some of the best there have ever been,’’ he adds.

These often include meals created by award-winning chefs, served on fine china, accompanied by premium wines and champagnes. Some first-class passengers are also offered spa services on board (such as massages and manicures) and access to telephone, Internet, and a variety of entertainment choices.

Going a step further, Singapore Airlines and Emirates market their first-class Airbus A380 cabins as suites. On Singapore, for example, that includes armchairs made of Italian leather, stand-alone full-size beds (not converted from a seat), 23-inch wide-screen personal LCD screens, Givenchy toiletries, and sliding doors with window blinds or privacy.

Private suites on Emirates have coat closets, vanity desks, personal mini bars, over 600 channels of TV, and use of private, chauffeur-driven cars to and from the airport.

Other more common perks of first class: Passengers have their own exclusive lavatory, are first on and first off the plane, enjoy more generous baggage allowances and expedited pickup, have access to dedicated airport lounges, and are far less likely to be seated next to a crying baby.

Associated Press airlines writer Scott Mayerowitz recently reported that while first- and business-class passengers combined comprise about 8 percent of international travelers, they generate about 27 percent of airline revenue, according to the International Air Transport Association. As a result, airlines are vying to attract the most profitable passengers by upgrading amenities for them to the tune of $2 billion.

Even with increased international travel, the number of first-class seats has been declining for at least two reasons: First, some airlines are finding it more profitable to expand international business class as opposed to first class. Second, there has been a rapid proliferation of lower-cost airlines with fewer premium-priced seats.

United is currently the only US domestic carrier that offers lie-flat seats on its Wi-Fi-enabled p.s.® Premium (first-class) service between New York (JFK) and Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Talking dollars and sense

While first class has its benefits for the privileged, its cost is far out of reach for the average Joe. ‘‘On average, the cost of a first-class ticket is approximately three times more than an economy ticket on that same flight,’’ says Terri Cherolis, an American Express travel agent. Not surprisingly, most first-class travelers are business executives, celebrities, and some very frequent fliers who are able to take advantage of free upgrades.

A simple search on TripAdvisor.com/Flights from New York to London between January 11- 18, 2012, returned four widely discrepant fares based on class: $649 round-trip coach (economy) on US Airways; $1,177 round-trip premium economy on British Airways; $3,412 round-trip business on Continental; and $10,676 round-trip first-class on American Airlines.

‘‘Now that first- and business-class have true flat beds, the distinction between the two is mostly the crew to passenger ratio, food quality and presentation, exclusivity of lounges, priority treatment at the airport, and a more comfortable seat,’’ says Wong, of SeatGuru.com. The cost of a first-class seat averages be- tween 1 to 3 times more than one in business class. ‘‘Even if you can afford it, first- class travel probably isn’t worth it,’’ says Rick Seaney, CEO of the website FareCompare.com. ‘‘The difference in price between first class and coach can pay for a week’s worth of hotels.’’

The rise of the middle class

While passengers with deep pockets are flying with extreme extras, the masses in coach are being nickeled and dimed to keep fares somewhat affordable. They are being scrunched into smaller seats and spaces while simultaneously being asked to pay more surcharges for everything from food, liquor, and snacks, to checked bags.

As a result, there is a growing middle class of business and premium economy travelers. Booking in advance, premium economy is generally 85 percent more expensive than coach, but about 65 percent less expensive on average than business class. British Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and United Airlines are among the airlines offering premium economy seating and Air France is expanding such seats on its fleet, Cherolis says.

Earlier this year, Air New Zealand offered a new twist on seating. The carrier placed 11 rows of Skycouch seats (22 seats in total) in the economy cabins of its new Boeing 777-300 ER aircraft. These ‘‘cuddle class’’ seats allow a couple (or individual) to lie flat across three seats, which have retracting armrests and flip-up footrests, for about 2½ times the cost of a standard economy seat. The downside: The additional space was taken from the already narrow aisles in coach.

[Previously published in The Boston Globe – December 25, 2011]


Also see: 8 Ways to snag a first-class fare upgrade

 

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