Editor's column by Louise Driscoll

Economy class travel: is it getting better or worse?

Crowded planes, poor legroom and declining onboard service are common euphemisms describing today's economy class experience.

Economy class travel: Is it better than most people give it credit for?Economy class travel: the pits or a cheap wonder?

It’s a question that divides frequent flyer communities and a topical issue, as new innovations in economy – from Air New Zealand’s Skycouches to Delta’s new ‘Comfort Class’ – shake-up perceptions by offering a more dignified experience at the back, without the sky-high business class prices.

Of course there’s no getting away from the general mentality that flying in economy has become an increasingly unpleasant experience: the idea that airlines treat those at the back as herds of cattle waiting to be transported as cargo, rather than passengers wanting a little pampering.

Crowded planes, poor legroom and declining onboard service are common euphemisms describing today’s economy class experience.

Then again, there’s no shortage of people who are happy to forgo a glass of champagne, five-course meal and social status to wrestle into an economy seat – if it’s going to net them a huge saving, and still take them to the same destination.

Still, those taking advantage of the cheap fares that economy class has afforded us often argue that flying – especially at the back – is not what it once was.

Pre-9/11, the economy class experience usually included a ‘free’ meal, eaten with stainless steel cutlery and washed down with an actual glass of something. Passengers could request another bag of pretzels without feeling guilty and even slip a few extra bags onboard, without raising eyebrows or being slapped a fee at the gate.

I do not believe travellers who pay Ryanair prices should expect British Airways standards of service.

But whether we like it or not, the reality is that business class remains a huge cost-step up. Many economy travellers are either happy to save the money or not in a financial position to experience what’s on the other side of the curtain.

While I sympathise with people who argue, quite fairly, that economy class (and air travel in general) isn’t what it used to be, I do not believe travellers who pay Ryanair prices should expect British Airways standards of service.

Similarly, those up in arms when airlines ‘unbundle’ services that traditionally came with the seat should bear in mind that this trend – whether it’s making airlines a bundle or not – has largely been driven by cut-throat budget airlines offering attractive fares while consumers similarly demand more ‘affordable’ fares. All this in an industry vulnerable to volatile fuel prices, terrorist attacks, pandemics and other world events.

‘Unbundling’ has turned economy travel into an inconvenience, but one comfort is that we can select a flight based on the airline, price, level of comfort, aircraft type and the bells and whistles that we want – or don’t want to pay for.

And with new airplanes including Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and the stretch version of the jumbo jet around the next cloud, the future of economy travel appears to be looking up, as airlines use the space onboard to create unconventional experiences.

Those on long-haul jaunts between London, Los Angeles and Auckland can already get a decent night’s sleep in economy on Air New Zealand’s skycouches, that convert a row of three window seats into a “couch” (value-for-money if you’re a couple, as to book a skycouch, you must buy three economy seats: the third at half price).

Japan’s ANA has made room for a women-only bathroom with a bidet-toilet on its new Dreamliners.

And economy travellers on Korean Air’s new A380s can stretch their legs inside an actual duty free shop onboard.

Our expectations in economy class too are evolving. We may still gawp at paying to check in a bag on some (US) airlines, but we’re also happy to cough up for wi-fi in-flight and splurge on an upgrade to a ‘gourmet’ economy meal on KLM – or so the Dutch airline says.

If space is your main gripe in economy class, Delta Air Lines recently introduced an ‘Economy Comfort’ section on long-haul flights, offering four inches extra legroom, 50% more recline than standard economy seats, priority boarding and complimentary spirits – for just a little extra.

But don’t get too excited just yet. Boeing factored in roomier cabins when it built the 787 Dreamliner, but ultimately airlines have the last say in how much space is between you and the seat in front.

What you will get on the Dreamliner are larger windows that you can tint to help you sleep, more overhead locker space, perhaps a few more connectivity options in your seat, and, hopefully, reduced jet-lag symptoms due to higher humidity levels in the cabin, compared to standard jets.

These new experiences prove that economy is evolving. Whether it’s enough to satisfy the expectations of critics, that’s still up in the air. As for me, I’ll happily continue eating my in-flight meal, hoping it too won’t one day disappear into the clouds…


What others have said

  1. The flying public has brought crappy service upon itself by insisting of flying as cheaply as possible, rather than emphasizing comfort. As the article says, if you pay a Ryanair price, then expect to be miserable and don’t complain. My frustration is that, as a leisure rather than business traveller, but with some extra ability to pay more, I’m willing to pay more for comfort on long-haul flights (and fervently hope that skycouches catch on with other airlines! What a great idea!). But premium economy is often double or triple the price of economy. That is not a value for money, at least not for me. For most long-haul, unless I can cash in my credit card frequent flier miles for business class, I’m probably going to stay home.

  2. I agree that someone paying RyanAir prices shouldn’t expect British Airways levels of service. The problem, though, is that the back of the plane is the same, regardless of which fare you pay. I can’t speak for intra-Europe travel, since I always take the train when I’m there, but in the US travelers in economy can be paying fares differing by significant amounts (the highest can be 3 to 6 times as much as the lowest). The airlines justify this by saying the flexibility is worth it to the traveler, but in fact a business traveler can throw away between two and five cheap tickets and still come out ahead.

    What’s needed is something in between the overpriced premium cabins and the cheapskate class in the back. I, for one, am willing to pay for value — but the airlines don’t offer it.

  3. Funny how unbundling does not necessarily reduce my travel costs… I used to travel regularly to Europe on AF (last experience in April) and still got a small meal in Economy on flights of 2 hrs or more (Paris-Madrid), no fee for my checked luggage, and paid about the same as any flight of same duration on a North American carrier. , I now travel to the US and within Canada regularly(career change). But now, I pay for my meal, my entertainment and checked luggage… and actually pay for my ticket, even with the exchange rate factored in.

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