New Airline Caste System – and New Perks for Economy Class Passengers

Do you know how much the first documented commercial airline passenger paid for his roundtrip flight? That airline ticket cost a whopping $175.

Sounds like a deal, right? Well, this was back in 1914, so actually that was kind of steep. When you adjust for inflation, that $175 flight was the equivalent of $3,700 in today’s money. Oh, and the flight was between St. Petersburg and Tampa so we’re talking a very short hop here (the entire flight only lasted 23 minutes).

When flying was only for the rich

So what does this tell us – that the first fliers were nuts? No! That they were rich.

But then, in the “olden days” – say, the 1920’s, early 1930’s – there really was only one class of service for air travelers, since only one class flew: the wealthy. Or, at least most fliers had money – they had to. And according to a 1930 market survey, “85 percent of the passengers came from major businesses and high-income residential areas.”

So the airlines started out with a caste system – of one level. That soon changed.

Flying becomes a democracy

As more and more people took to flight, and it became somewhat more democratic, the idea of special perks and services proved irresistible (chalk it up to human nature) and by the early 1940’s, Pan Am had developed a “first class” aboard its intercontinental Clipper planes, emulating the tiered-service of ocean liners. By the late 1970’s, Qantas is credited with the development of “business class”, while the rest of us sat back in economy or coach class (unless it was on our company’s dime – or our own frequent flier miles).

The old caste system was complete. But once again, times changed.

The recent global economic meltdown really put a damper on first and even business class (though the latter is showing signs of recovery), but face it, first class is pricey: I saw first class tickets on American Airlines from Los Angeles to New York for this coming weekend for just over $5,320.  The cost for economy was just $441 (note that prices were higher than “normal” in both cases because I selected flights on the most expensive days to fly – Friday and Sunday – with little advance purchase).

Orwell put it best: “Some are more equal than others”

Which probably explains why the airlines keep tinkering with economy class: charging for add-on’s and perks while at the same time, creating a whole new caste system within coach.

Well, we all like status; even those of us who don’t fly much, and therefore can’t earn it with frequent flier miles. The solution? Buy your way up in rank; pay for prestige.

That’s what Southwest’s EarlyBird check-in is all about; don’t want to pay the higher “Business Select” class prices? Do the next best thing, plunk down $10 and board behind the road warriors, but ahead of the hoi polloi. And the airline rakes in the gravy.

Go ahead – cut in line

They all do. On United, you can get better seats, “cut in line” privileges and other perks-for-a-price, but do read the fine print on any airline seat or other “perk” offer, since offers can and do change at any time.

A flyer I know figured out she could improve her seat position for a mere $5 on US Airways, and told me, it was the best five bucks she ever spent.

What all this means is, a new caste is forming – within economy class – and for a few bucks for one service or another, you can move up, if you like.

Does this mean the airlines nickel and diming us? I guess it just depends how you look at it; it is a choice, just as it is a choice to pay for bag fees: avoid them by using a carryon (except on Spirit Airlines!) or fly airlines that give you a bag or two for free, like JetBlue and Southwest.

The alternative is to become rich or famous, whereby you can afford the most lavish of perks or get them extended to you as a courtesy. Note: This sometimes works even if you a “celebrity animal”: Midwest has allowed champion Frisbee competitor “Rory” (an Australian Shepherd) to sit in his own seat (as opposed to being stuck in a carrier). But perhaps he’s better behaved than some of the other passengers, who knows?

Credit cards can save you bag fees

Another to move up in the “caste within economy” is via your credit card: Delta now offers a free bag for you and your traveling party, if you’ll sign on for their co-branded American Express card. Don’t have enough money to fly, even in economy class? Take a look at American Airline’s credit account which lets you fly now and pay later – and “later is within the following six months.

So what are we going to see in the future – economy fliers bragging about their “good seats” or the fact that they scored bin space before anyone one else? Maybe. Or maybe some will yell about the lack of “equality” in the air.

But I think we’ve seen that the old adage that applies to so much in American life, applies to the airline industry’s burgeoning economy class caste system, too – and that is, “Money talks, and you-know-what walks.” Or maybe it simply rides the bus.


Published: May 12, 2010