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 The Brancatelli File

joe SECOND THOUGHTS
ABOUT FIRST CLASS


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

March 4, 2004 -- Heaven help us poor frequent flyers when the mainstream media thinks it has detected a trend in the airline industry. Newsprint flies, talking heads hyperventilate, pundits spin sound-bite wonderlands and the chartmakers produce neat little boxes of gobbledygook. It's a lot of sound and fury that bears precious little relation to the life we actually live on the road.

What has caught the media's attention now? As best as I can tell, the boys and girls on the front lines of journalism have decided that we poor frequent flyers are just about to enter a golden age of first-class flying. It'll be cheaper than ever before, they tell us. There'll be room enough for all of us at prices that the bean counters back at corporate headquarters won't be able to resist.

Yeah, right. And have you heard that Bush and Kerry are going to run nice, friendly, positive campaigns for President?

It's time for some second thoughts about this purported second coming of domestic first class.

WHAT'S ALL THE NOISE ABOUT?
In fairness to my friends in the mainstream media, there is a lot of activity that seems to be about first-class travel. Two airlines--Alaska and America West--have reduced their first-class fares. Another carrier--ATA Airlines--says it will add a premium-class cabin. And two of the Big Six--American and Northwest--have liberalized the elite levels of their frequent-flyer plans to emphasize free upgrade privileges.

But these events do not constitute anything like a coherent industry trend. Alaska's move was part of a general fare restructuring aimed at protecting its key markets before a discounter arrived. And Alaska made sure not to lower its first-class tariffs until after it bled an estimated $10 million dollars worth of amenities from its up-front cabin. By introducing its advance-purchase first-class fares, America West actually added complexity into the pricing system. ATA's move is a desperate attempt by a badly focused airline to counteract its well-deserved image for erratic service. And the American and Northwest changes are catch-up maneuvers. Standing alone, each of the items is worth discussing. But throwing them into one big journalistic pot and divining a trend is ludicrous.

NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT
In point of absolute fact--and in complete contradiction to the impression created in the mainstream media--it's getting harder and harder to find a domestic first-class seat these days. Why? Fewer and fewer aircraft operated by the Big Six have first-class cabins.

According to Missed Connections II, 49 percent of the domestic flights of the Big Six are now operated with regional jets (RJs) or turboprops. And since almost none of those planes have first-class cabins, that means you've only got a one-in-two shot of finding a Big Six flight with a first-class cabin. And the number of RJs in service is rising dramatically as the Big Six turn traditional jet routes over to their commuter carriers. One-class RJs now fly routes as long as 1,500 miles. Then add Delta Song and United Ted to the mix. These one-class offshoots mean dozens more routes now have no first-class service.

The impact of the RJs is especially hard to overestimate. According to the latest report from the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, 70 percent of the flights at Delta's Cincinnati hub are now RJs, which means 70 percent of the flights have no first-class seats. The number is 44 percent at United's Washington/Dulles hub and 40 percent at Chicago/O'Hare, a hub for both United and American.

One other thing when it comes to the simple availability of first-class cabins. When you find them, they are smaller than ever. For example, US Airways recently reduced the size of the first-class cabin on its B-757s. According to current seat maps, the huge planes now have just eight seats in first. And Continental just took delivery of its first B-757-300. It has 12 first-class seats. Older B-757-200s in Continental's domestic fleet have 24 seats in first.

WHAT'S THE F-ING DIFFERENCE?
Another misconception created by the mainstream media lately is that all first-class cabins are roughly the same. That couldn't be further from the truth. Just because a Big Six seat carries an F designation doesn't guarantee that you'll get a consistent first-class experience anymore.

At Northwest, for example, first-class seat pitch on the airline's large fleet of aged DC-9s is just 34 inches. American and JetBlue offer that much legroom at most of the chairs in their coach cabins. Continental's transcon service uses a fleet as diverse as the Boeing 767 widebody and the skinny Boeing 737. The 767 offers Continental's much-admired BusinessFirst configuration: Seats are 21 inches wide with 55 inches of legroom. Yet the upfront cabins on the 737s offer chairs that are just 18 inches wide with only 38 inches of seat pitch.

Service and amenities? There are fewer flight attendants on duty up-front, less gracious and solicitous service and dramatically reduced food and beverage options. And none of the up-front cabins of the Big Six offer live, at-seat TV, a standard amenity of one-class JetBlue that is also available in coach on many Frontier and Song flights.

Is riding up front better than sitting in coach? Of course it is. But there are no standards. In its own, slightly more rarified way, first class today is as much a crapshoot as coach.

NOW YOU SEE THE UPGRADE, NOW YOU DON'T
For all the recent movement in the elite levels of the frequent-flyer programs, one thing has remained constant: There is no such thing as a truly unrestricted upgrade. The status upgrades offered by the Big Six are all capacity controlled. And as the price of first-class seats begins to edge downward, logic dictates that more of those seats will be purchased. And that means airlines will be less likely than ever to make seats available for elite-status upgrades.

ARE FIRST-CLASS PRICES REALLY DROPPING?
Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Who knows? Alaska's fare decrease is genuine enough and has been matched by Big Six carriers wherever they directly compete. America West's first-class price changes are much more complicated. The airline added advance-purchase first-class fares and they are, in fact, dramatically lower than the full-price, walk-up fares sold by the Big Six. But how many America West seats will actually be available at those advance-purchase fares--and whether the Big Six have matched the advance-purchase fares in practice rather than just with theoretical fare codes--can only be known over the course of the next few months. Besides, America West's new fares are actually higher than their previous F fares on the much-watched transcon routes. Before the announcement, America West was selling walk-up coast-to-coast tickets for $499 one way. After the announcement, the $499 price was only available with a 7-day advance purchase. The walk-up fare rose to $699 one-way.

THE 'RISE' OF THE NOT-QUITE-FIRST CLASS
ATA's announcement of a business-class cabin sent the mainstream media into a frenzy of speculation that other discounters would follow. Not likely. For one thing, AirTran and Spirit already offer better-than-coach cabins. Spirit Plus offers 2x2 leather chairs with 36 inches of legroom. AirTran's Business Class offers 2x2 seating with 37 inches of seat pitch. But Southwest and JetBlue, the two leading low-fare airlines, are one-class carriers by operational design and marketing culture. And all-coach, Denver-based Frontier now finds itself in competition primarily with Ted, United's woebegone offshoot that doesn't offer a first-class section. So where, exactly, will the new, not-quite-first-class seats come from?

THEY DARE YOU TO BUY FIRST
I'm doggedly working to pull together a systematic guide to finding low-priced, premium-class fares, but permit me to leave you with this tidbit. Among the Big Six, only the Continental and Delta Web sites even offer a first-class option in their respective homepage fare-finder boxes. It's almost as if the Big Six think no business traveler in his or her right mind would actually want to buy a first-class ticket.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.