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James Atlas complains about inequality in the skies:

The choice of “snacks” on some recent flights I’ve taken include blue potato chips, a cranberry-almond bar, a packet of trail mix and — a selection I haven’t been offered before — popcorn. But it makes sense: the cabin already feels like a movie theater at the end of a showing, even though we still have an hour to go. The floor is strewn with candy-bar wrappers and broken headsets, crumpled napkins and cracked plastic glasses. There’s so little legroom that I have to push my knees against the seat in front of me as if I’m doing crunches. Welcome to economy.

During an intercontinental flight, I notice that “on the other side of the curtain” — as the first-class and business cabins are referred to — dinners are being served on white linen tablecloths, with actual bone china. Everyone’s got their “amenities kit” — one of those little nylon bags containing slippers, an eyeshade and a toothbrush. And legroom? Tons. While our seat width contracts — on some airlines by nearly eight inches in recent years — the space up front continues to expand: Emirates Airlines now offers, as part of its “first-class private suite,” a private room with minibar, wide-screen TV and “lie-flat bed.”with actual bone china. Everyone’s got their “amenities kit” — one of those little nylon bags containing slippers, an eyeshade and a toothbrush. And legroom? Tons. While our seat width contracts — on some airlines by nearly eight inches in recent years — the space up front continues to expand: Emirates Airlines now offers, as part of its “first-class private suite,” a private room with minibar, wide-screen TV and “lie-flat bed.”

I am often sensitive to these kinds of arguments. And increasingly so, as I get older. A while back I took the relatively unpopular position that out of simple egalitarianism new cars should have emission tests aside the old. I also do sort of cringe a bit at what Megan McArdle described here at amusement parks, even though many of the same things apply there that apply to the unfriendly skies… where it doesn’t bother me at all.

Why not? Because we fly so that we can get from Point A to Point B. The most important thing is that people get from Point A to Point B. If we all had to fly in “steerage,” the purpose would be accomplished. A whole lot of the complaints aboput the unfriendly skies are ultimately complaints that we have popularized flight. By making flight affordable to the masses, sacrifices had to be made. I cannot look at yesteryear, where fliers were treated well but limited to the upper classes. I don’t want to go back to that at all.

Now, maybe we should do things that would cause us to go back to that – such as implementing carbon taxes that would push the costs of flying out of reach of most Americans – but let’s be clear about what we’re arguing for. It’s not egalitarian. It is something that will allow the upper classes to continue to do things that will become harder for everybody else.

And it’s hard for me to look at the situation and overlook the apparent fact that this is a case of the wealthy consumer subsidizing the cheap seats. Is First Class nice? Heck yeah, it is. But it is also obscenely expensive. The profit margins they make from those seats are profit margins they don’t need to make from the cheaper seats.

Self-selected price discrimination is pretty great. I like that Clancy and I are at the time of our lives that we can afford extra leg room. Maybe some day we will actually be able to afford First Class. But in the absence of that, I want transportation as cheaply as possible. That means cramped seats, limited culinary options, and so on.


Category: Road

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5 Responses to The Case For Air Steerage

  1. Peter says:

    Many of the passengers in first class on a particular flight are using frequent-flyer upgrades rather than paying the much higher fares.

  2. Kirk says:

    For what it’s worth, a first-class parlor suite on the Titanic cost upwards of $60k.

    http://www.keyflux.com/titanic/facts.htm

    Interesting, that four cases of opium were on the manifest.

  3. Φ says:

    But shouldn’t this be evaluated in light of other trends? Are economy seats really getting less expensive relative to first class lately?

    • Trumwill says:

      I actually tried to look that up, but had no success. Ultimately, in the broader discussion, it doesn’t cut much one way or the other. If the price has been relatively static compared to economy, then it could be claimed that this is demonstrative that economy is feeling a pinch that first class isn’t while I can respond that we’re still looking at a situation where smaller seats have played a role in keeping costs down and that costs have merely shifted to the new middleground of “Economy Plus” who now carry more of the burden. If prices have diverged, then I can claim that it’s demonstrative that first class passengers are carrying more of the financial burden and they can respond that it only shows how much greater inequality is becoming (which is what Atlas was trying to get at).

      For what it’s worth, I believe that the latter is true, depending on how you define “lately”. When I was young, the rule of thumb was that one first class equals two economy. Now one first class equals three or four (I checked a few flights, and that was what I came up with. Someone else found a whopping six-fold, on an international flight.)

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