Distancing the travel lords from the less-fortunate vassals by the fares they pay, airlines have stratified the flying experience in a class war--now raging greater than ever--over premium customers.
Basic economy services like bag checks and meals were unbundled during the recession to generate revenue. Now, with the economy's uptick, premium classes are exploding with perks such as first-class showers and stand-up bars, business-class lie-flat seats and extra legroom in premium economy. "With consolidation, there are fewer airlines, and they have to differentiate themselves to compete," says Airfarewatchdog.com founder George Hobica.
The competition for top-tier customers starts on the ground. Delta joined with Architectural Digest to develop outdoor terraces for its lounges at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Virgin Atlantic's Clubhouse lounges at London's Heathrow have spas where you can get your hair cut by a Bumble and bumble stylist. Qantas has a service that ferries first-class passengers booked on flights of at least 12 hours to and from the airport in a luxury car.
In the air, Emirates pioneered the in-flight shower in 2008. Now Air France offers a changing room so first-class travelers can have privacy when they slip into their complimentary PJs, and business-class passengers enjoy dishes like shrimp and squid with lobster sauce from Michelin-starred chef Michel Roth. Virgin Atlantic recently introduced British afternoon tea on daytime transatlantic flights in first.
Of course, airlines love their first-class clients, who pay roughly 10 times more than coach passengers. "The competition for customers who pay more is furious, as it should be," says Joe Brancatelli, founder of JoeSentMe.com. "Now we're beginning to see a new battle between business class and premium economy."
Just as business class got its start when the gap between first and economy grew exceedingly large, premium economy was spawned by the breach between business and steerage. It goes by many names--American Airlines calls it Main Cabin Extra; United has Economy Plus; British Airways has World Traveller Plus. But the concept is the same: ante up for adequate legroom and a seat near the front of the plane.
"It's like going to Disneyland, where you can always spend money to jump the line," Hobica says.
Those figurative lines come in many forms. A recent Aer Lingus flight between Chicago and Dublin advertised a round-trip fare of $868. Another $60 secured seats both ways just two rows behind business class. And travelers could order a three-course premium steak dinner for $20--including a glass of wine, itself a $6.50 value--to arrive before the regular meal service.
No wonder we feel nickel-and-dimed. "Premium economy cabins are what airlines gave all customers 20 years ago," Brancatelli says, citing the squeeze in economy space wrought by the forward cabins' suites, beds and showers. "They give you more by taking away from others."
Flier, beware. Even JetBlue, whose standard leather seats have 33 or 34 inches of legroom, cut back a few inches in some rows to introduce "Even More" seating with 38 inches--at an upcharge, of course.
Chicago-based Elaine Glusac covers travel and transit for The New York Times and National Geographic Traveler.