A friend asked me recently to name my favorite domestic airline if I were to fly first class. I couldn't. More often than not, I told him sadly, first class just isn't first class anymore on U.S. airlines.
In the years since deregulation began, first-class service and amenities on domestic flights have been declining. And, flying up front--even if you can afford to pay the 30% to 225% fare premium for the privilege--may not be worth it.
In many cases the planes are dirty, the food quality has declined and the seats don't seem as comfortable.
Whatever happened to truly first-class domestic air travel? Does anyone remember flights that offered caviar, food cooked to order and spacious lounges?
Victim of Fare Wars
They are, alas, only memories. As airlines attempted to fill their planes, fare wars targeted discount passengers (87% of all airline passengers last year flew on discount tickets), and first class was largely ignored.
"With deregulation, a lot of airlines tended to de-emphasize their first-class sections and service," said Adam Aron, Western Airlines' vice president of marketing programs. "There was a significant lessened quality of the first-class travel experience. First-class cabins became smaller, leg room decreased, meals and amenities were reduced."
In some cases, first-class sections were reduced, and upstairs first-class lounges on 747s were converted to coach or business-class seating.
But now, some airlines are re-embracing the concept of excellent first-class service.
Western has upgraded its meal service. Instead of serving Johnnie Walker Red Label Scotch, Western now serves Chivas Regal. Even the mustard used on some flights has been changed--it's now imported.
In October, the airline installed first-class sections on all its 737 aircraft, previously all-coach planes. Western also took a hard look at its other jets, and began a refurbishment program. In February, new interiors were installed, featuring navy-blue leather seats in first class on all of Western's 727s and DC-10s.
Now the airline claims it is carrying 50% more passengers in first class this year than it did for the same period in 1985.
However, one reason for the increase is that Western, like many other airlines, often gives away seats in first class in the form of upgrades through its frequent-flyer program. Nationwide, only 41% of all first-class passengers paid full fare in 1985.
Western has one of the more liberal first-class redemption programs. For 10,000 miles accumulated in it, passengers are given five first-class upgrade stickers.
Delta offers members of its frequent-flyer programs upgrades to first class for $15 to $45. There's a catch: Passengers must first pay the undiscounted coach fare.
Some airlines have made substantial cuts in first-class fares to attract passengers. Continental's first-class fares have been significantly lower than its competitors, and, in some markets, lower than standard undiscounted coach fares. In the Denver-Los Angeles market, Continental's first-class fares were as low as United's coach fares. United has matched Continental's first-class fares on that route.
Jet America sells first-class seats between Long Beach and Chicago for only $289. The fare People Express charges for a first-class ticket between Newark and Los Angeles is less than half the first-class fare charged by American and United.
Some airlines are introducing first-class service on short flights. Eight months ago Aloha announced that it would offer first-class service on its inter-island flights in Hawaii. The flights are short, and a first-class ticket costs $20 above the regular coach fare.
What does first class mean on a 40-minute flight? Pre-boarding, complimentary cocktails and an in-flight gift. What it doesn't mean is a bigger seat or more leg room.
"Still, we think it's been very successful," said William Henderson, Aloha's marketing vice president. "We weren't sure it would work at first, but we've discovered that there is a definite need for upscale travel throughout the islands."
Flowers on Meal Trays
Republic, which generally flies shorter hops, also began first-class service this year. Meal service has been upgraded and passengers get flowers on their trays as well as hot towels before and after each meal. Republic has also priced its first-class service well below its competition.
"With deregulation," said David Palmer, Alaska Airlines' assistant vice president of marketing, "the disparity between first-class and coach prices became huge. A lot of airlines started giving away their first-class seats, offering free upgrades and promotions. We took the opposite approach. We didn't want first class to become a zoo."
Nevertheless, Alaska has restructured its first-class fares to attract more passengers up front.
For example, a year ago the San Francisco to Seattle first-class fare was nearly 60% more than it is today.