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In Defense of First Class

Over at the L.A. Times, Michael Hiltzik uses flight travel as an analogy for today’s economic inequality. But he draws exactly the wrong lesson.

[U.S. and European airlines have] been squeezing ordinary passengers into narrower seats with less legroom, so they can expand the offerings for those willing to pay extra — Economy Plus (about as much legroom as you used to get for the lowest fares); Business Class, and Upper Crust. On international flights, the latter don’t only get cookies, but fold-down beds! . . . As in real life on the ground, the middle gets squeezed the most.

You get the point. We’re being sacrificed in order to reward the rich guys. Trouble is, it’s close to the other way around: all those people in the front of the plane, sipping mediocre champagne and reclining slightly larger seats a few extra inches back — in many cases they are effectively subsidizing the rest of us. (On long-haul flights, first class and business class make up 20 percent of the seats and are responsible for 40-50 percent of the airline’s revenue.)


It depends on the flight, but usually first class costs about ten times as much as a seat in coach. And however nice it may be up there, you sure don’t get ten times as much room.


Those higher ticket prices are helping to cover the enormous fixed cost of flying a giant container of steel, jet fuel, and human beings across the country. Selling high-priced first-class tickets to people who aren’t very price sensitive allows the airline to charge lower prices to people who are price sensitive.


The fact that we can now choose from a variety of seating options is not some diabolical scheme to exploit us. It’s a genuine value. We get to choose how much we value extra space. If you’re living on a budget, the ability to buy a cheaper, less comfortable seat is a benefit. And if comfort matters a great deal to you, it’s wonderful that you have the ability to purchase that comfort.


But some people don’t want choice — they want equality. And since it’s impossible to lift everyone up to the same level, what they inevitably end up seeking is to bring the high-fliers down.