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As airlines chase first-class passengers, economy gets the squeeze

Flight attendant readies a suite on Singapore Air.

Airlines are waging war against one another in first-class cabins around the world. Their weapons of choice? Wedgwood china, 32-inch flat-screen TVs, posh wine lists, caviar, and private suites with full-size beds.

Air France is among many carriers that upped their game last year when it unveiled its new 32-square-foot luxury Premiere Suites. You can curtain yourself off for complete privacy, because who wants to see some guy sleeping in the next seat with his mouth open sporting a necklace of drool? For $9,800, you also get a seat that transforms into a nearly 7-foot-long bed with bedding from Sofitel. If you stay awake, you can enjoy food from Michelin-starred French chefs.


Would you care for caviar with that glass of Veuve Clicquot? It comes on a porcelain plate designed by Bernar-daud with beveled glasses and flatware crafted by Christofle.

Véronique Jeanclerc, Air France’s première product manager, puts it succinctly: First-class customers “want something like a suite in a palace.”

“There is competition for these customers, and there are standards they expect,” she said.

Analysts say this competition isn’t for bragging rights, but is all about the bottom line. Back in the economy section, seats have been, and will continue to be, squeezed and more fees levied. Those economy seats pay for fixed operating costs, such as fuel and labor. The posh first-class seats, which can cost well over $10,000, generate profit and boost the bottom line, pleasing the airline’s demanding investors.

First-class cabin on Air France.

“They’re really fighting for those profitable, first-class customers, and the way they’re doing it is with private suites, on-board chefs, personal butlers, along with ground services like massages and chauffeurs,” said Brian Kelly, who runs the website the Points Guy. “Right now privacy is the big thing in first class.”

Air France delivers chic European elegance, but for pure, over-the-top first-class indulgence, United Arab Emirates-based Etihad Airways offers what it calls the Residence. Introduced at the end of 2014, this is more like a hotel room than a seat on a plane. The glorious sight of the three-room Etihad Residence, with its lounge seats, full-length bed, and en-suite shower (!) is enough to reduce the average traumatized economy passenger to tears. The price (which includes a butler) may also elicit tears: It’s $20,000. You penny pinchers can book the slightly less opulent First Apartment on Etihad. It hovers around $10,000.


Bedroom of the Residence on Etihad Airways.Handout

Ponder that the next time you sip your (hopefully free) in-flight Diet Coke.

“It’s really a case of the airlines chasing the money,” said Jami Counter, senior director of TripAdvisor Flights and SeatGuru. “You start seeing this ridiculous level of opulence creep in there.”

As they compete for well-heeled first-class passengers, carriers continue to make changes in the back of the cabin. You may not be as excited to hear about those.

Economy seats are narrower and closer, but they’re also getting less padded. Last year airlines such as Delta, United, American, Southwest, and Spirit swapped out standard cushion seats for slim-line seats. The name may sound stylish, but slim-line is a nice way of saying that perching on these seats can be about as comfortable as sitting on a park bench for a long-haul flight. Less cushioning means the seats take up less space. Less space means the potential to add more seats. More seats, of course, means more money.


Not surprisingly, 83 percent of passengers who tried the new seats said they were less comfortable, according to a TripAdvisor survey of 1,391 travelers.

Even JetBlue, the airline that once boasted of its spacious legroom and free baggage check, introduced baggage fees this year. Next year it will reduce legroom by 5 percent. The reduced legroom will allow for more seats, making JetBlue more profitable and appealing to investors.

The First Class Apartment on Etihad Airways.Handout

“You’re not going to get people in economy to pay more,” said Michael Friedman, senior equity analyst at Delaware Investments. “So the question has become, to what extent are airline passengers willing to accept torture to save a few dollars?”

That question may already have a frightening answer. Earlier this month, the French company Zodiac Seats received a patent for hexagonal economy class seats, which create a honeycomb pattern. It also creates what could be the most awkward seating configuration you’ve ever seen. The aisle and window seat face forward, the middle seat faces the back of the plane. That means the unfortunate soul in the middle seat faces the other two passengers. Or maybe everyone is unfortunate. You’ll be face-to-face with your entire row, but at least they won’t be able to see what’s on your computer screen. On the upside, there will be no more jostling for armrests. The downside? There are no more armrests.

There are even more draconian patents floating around out there for new seat configurations. One has passengers practically standing, strapped into a bicycle seat. Thankfully, no airline has announced planes to adopt these new seats.


But it’s not all bad news for coach. Last month the International Air Transport Association said carry-ons had gotten too big, and suggested new guidelines for smaller carry-ons of 21.5 inches by 13.5 inches by 7.5 inches. That’s quite a reduction from the 22-by-14-by-9 limit currently in place. After significant hue and cry, IATA clarified that smaller bags should get priority, not be banned. That means your current carry-on is safe — at least for the moment.

But Kelly of Points Guy said the outcry over smaller carry-ons is a rare example of passenger backlash.

“As long as consumers don’t really demand better options and there’s no revolt, then things aren’t going to change,” Kelly said. “JetBlue made the seats tighter, and I don’t think there’s been a revolt against JetBlue, and they’re probably just going to make more money. So it’s simple economics. Even Spirit, which prides itself on bad service, is doing phenomenally well.”

Zodiac Seats’ computer rendering of their seats in the concept phase — and the economy section.

Counter says it’s unfair to pick on JetBlue and other carriers that are making upgrades to their planes. “Airlines have invested quite a bit of money. Putting aside the ultra-low cost carrier segment, you find that most planes have Wi-Fi. A lot of them have the under-seat power ports. They have in-flight entertainment. The overall product’s gotten better,” he said.

Maxing out seat numbers and fees in the back of the plane is leading airlines to shift their focus toward the front for additional dollars. One initiative that has been gaining traction is a premium economy class. It’s a rapidly expanding category for passengers who are tired of feeling like a sardine, but don’t have the income for business travel.


“For us it made sense because there’s such a wide gap between business and economy,” said Katja Gatersleben, senior manager of customer experience for Lufthansa.

Perhaps the strongest indicator that airlines are now aiming for more moneyed customers was JetBlue’s introduction of Mint. Until Mint was unveiled in 2014, JetBlue never had a first-class cabin. But the success of Mint, which straddles the price point between business and first class, has led JetBlue to increase the number of Mint routes. Nonstop Mint flights between Boston and San Francisco will debut in March 2016 and to Los Angeles in fall 2016. The airline is currently offering a $599 promotion for those flights.

“They’re going after that sweet spot of businesses that will pay for it,” Friedman said. “The other part of it is that they can now appeal to leisure passengers who will say, ‘For a few hundred extra dollars, I can fly first class on JetBlue.’ ”

Swissair's new first-class cabin.

But the true pursuit is for those who don’t mind spending a few extra thousand.

Singapore Air was the one of the first carriers to offer private cabins, in 2008. As more foreign carriers offer them (you’ll find fewer opportunities for privacy on US carriers), Singapore spokesman James Bradbury-Boyd said the company has been looking for other ways to woo first-class fliers in those $10,000 to $20,000 cabins.

“This is a battle taking place across many fronts,” he said. “It’s a battle that is fought with seemingly mundane things such as china service, or a wine list, or a roster of entertainment options. They’re areas where we invest tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars in ongoing upgrades. It’s completely worth it. These customers are so valuable to us.”

Christopher Muther can be reached at