Allow Me to Quibble with Literally Every Sentence of This NY Times Article about First Class

Oh man. I know I’ve been complaining about NY Times travel coverage a few times here, but I can’t help it if they keep writing garbage about the state of airline travel. To wit:

This piece, “Whatever Happened to First Class,” laments the long-lost days of luxurious first class travel. Now, the article suggests, travelers must suffer through multiple indignities while seated up front. While not paying for first class. Really, the article is saying that now that airlines basically give away first class to everybody, they’ve cut back on a couple of things.

The author starts by saying that when booking some recent first class travel, he looked forward to avoiding “the battles for overhead space, the wheelie-bag traffic jams, the knee-numbing legroom” one finds in coach nowadays.

That’s always been the case on the first two, no? Overhead space is actually improved on new aircraft, and people were never rushing to check bags, so overhead bins (since they were smaller back in the day – tell me the next time you’re on an old MD-80 if you like the overhead bin space) were full then, too. And legroom? JetBlue has 34″ throughout the cabin. Just about every airline allows you to either buy up to more legroom for a reasonable fee, or to grab a seat with more legroom if you have status.

Once an enclave of elegance, fabulous fliers and V.I.P.’s with sights to see and places to be, these days, judging from a recent informal survey I undertook of several of the nation’s bigger domestic carriers, the experience is often reminiscent of what one used to find in coach. Same kind of pillows. Same kind of blankets. Same kind of guy in sweats, a fleece and a ball-cap letting his knees expand to the widest possible angle while downing a free drink.

Oh, and I skipped the part where he complains about the towel he is given prior to takeoff in first class.

Putting that aside, when was first class flying an “enclave of elegance, fabulous fliers and VIPs?” 1957? I hate to break it to him, but he would not be flying in first class in 1957. Most people couldn’t afford flying in coach in 1957. Those of us of a certain age remember that the family trip to Florida involved driving 1200 miles to Florida, not flying. Why? Because it was very, very expensive to fly anywhere. And I’m not sure he should be blaming the airlines for a guy wearing a baseball hat and sweats in first class.

How bad is it in first class? The writer says he recently upgraded (for $75!!!!!) to receive “a bigger seat, a tiny pillow, a big bottle of water and a choice of nuts or cheese snacks, delivered in what an airline spokesman later called a ‘relatively heavy snack basket.’” The suggestion is that this is a rip-off. Why? Because he got a bigger seat? 6 more inches of legroom and 3 more inches of width for $75. What is bad about that?

The nonsense about the golden age continues, saying, “Meals were an event, with high-end chefs from restaurants like the “21” Club in New York catering meals that would be served on Rosenthal china with stainless steel silverware, starched white napkins and tablecloths. The pillows were large, the cases starched white, and the candies were hard (to comfort the ears on takeoff, of course).”

Really? Airline food in 1971 was great? And first class is terrible now because the food is served on a lesser china?

He picks out the most expensive first class route (NY to LA) to suggest that first class fares are out of control despite the terrible experience therein. But a roundtrip first class ticket from New York to Florida is $731 on Delta (for travel in March), or roughly 1/3 of what I used to pay to fly from New York City to Dallas in coach. There are plenty of routes where first class is a bargain if you want to pay for it. If you want to upgrade with miles, there are ample opportunities to use miles for that seat.

And buried down in paragraph 72 or so is this, “Airlines tend to load the extras onto their longer, transcontinental flights, which can feature meals designed by celebrity chefs, seats that extend to lie flat and computer tablets loaded with movies and video games.”

Ah right – first class actually IS pretty good on longer flights, he suddenly remembers.

So, to sum up, he thinks first class is only slightly better than coach if you fly a short distance, primarily because his towel was small and the food was not served in a manner befitting a cabinful of travelers who did not pay for first class. If you fly transcon, the experience is actually pretty good, he thinks.

I would add that while you can complain all you want, the state of the in-flight experience is better than it has ever been (depending on what is important to you). If you’re looking for an ersatz version of dining at the 21 Club, then no, it’s gotten worse. If you’re looking for a comfortable way to pass 3 hours, what exactly are you complaining about? Airfares are cheap; there are a bunch of ways to buy yourself (or get yourself through status) more legroom; iPads and lapstops allow us to carry a ton of movies with us; your Kindle/Nook allows you to bring an entire library onto the plane; a bunch of airlines provide TELEVISION in the air (amazing when you stop and think about that); internet is available on a growing number of planes. What part of that is worse?

Sure, planes are fuller than ever (but stop kidding yourself – if they were 75% full in the past, and 82% full now, that’s not a massive difference in your comfort), but 3 hours passes by on a plane faster than ever. And for everyone who complains about children on planes, iPads have given 5 year olds a way to spend 5 hours that do not involve kicking the back of your seat. THAT’S a golden age of travel.

Speaking of which, I spent the weekend with my in-laws, who were celebrating their 50th anniversary. They had saved some mementos from their honeymoon, including a confirmation letter from the Fountainebleu in Miami to their travel agent. I’m going to reprint it here, because I think it speaks to the changes in travel, first class or otherwise. Here’s what’s going on today: the world has become informal. Men used to wear suits, ties and fedoras to go to a baseball game. That’s just how it was. American culture has become more laid back, and travel reflects that as well. First class may be an obvious example of how that’s changed. We ate dinner in what can only be described as a “fancy restaurant” (at least by my children) over the weekend, and one of the gentlemen eating there was wearing sneakers. It’s just different now, and that’s why the china, uniforms, and fedoras of the olden days of first class are gone. They’ve been replaced, though, with the actual ability for you to fly first class while watching television. I’ll take that tradeoff.

Anyhow, I loved the formality and effusiveness of what is just a confirmation that a room has been booked:


We acknowledge with many thanks very nice reservations for your above named clients, together with deposit in the amount of $36.

In accordance with your request we are happy to reserve for their arrival April 21st one of our beautifully appointed accommodations which is to be occupied until April 29th, rate $36 daily double occupancy, Modified American Plan.

It will be our great pleasure to entertain Mr. and Mrs Lanter and you can assure them a most delightful Fountainebleu holiday will be theirs to enjoy to the very fullest.

Again many thanks and with all good wishes.

Cordially Yours

Just like the confirmation you received when you booked at, no?

Life was more formal then. It’s not coming back. Stop complaining about that and enjoy your comfortable ride in first class that you did not pay for.

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  1. Gary’s blog covered this story as well.

    As usual, I agree with you that the author has an unrealistic view of past FC travel.

    BTW, one recollection I didn’t include was flying biz class on CO to Europe right before they adopted BusinessFirst. I guess this would be sometime in the early 1990s. They still had 3-class int’l service. My biz class seat at the time was very much like the current DOMESTIC FC seat. The food was barely edible — nothing like the current BusinessFirst feast. And, of course, the entertainment system was primative.

    Everyone paints a rosy glow on the past, I suppose.

    • I remember a CO flight in Business to HNL in 1987. Seats were the generation before the 767 BF seats that everyone now complains about (ie, if you were to find yourself in Business class on a 3rd-tier airline, say Biman Bangladesh). So-called “sleeper” seats. If asked, though, my father could probably describe every bite of the macadamia pie they served on the Hawaii service back then. So for the $4,000, you got a slice of pie.

  2. Since the Lorenzo days, CO has always had above average food. It may be because they had a hub in NYC and owned a catering company (Chelsea, which I assume they no longer own. Anyway, the food in FC has always been good, particularly out of EWR. Just last month, I had a mushroom soup that was better than any restaurant version I can remember. In fact, I was disappointed last week when I didn’t get any soup. My flight left at 7:10 pm, which apparently is too late in CO’s mind to serve you dinner, only a cold snack (I guess I was supposed to eat dinner before I left for the airport at 4:45?). So no soup for me!

  3. In Which I Actually Defend Travel Coverage in the New York Times - View from the Wing - pingback on February 14, 2012 at 5:57 am

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