Welcome to coach, 'the ninth circle of hell'

"Over the past few years—and this will probably come as no surprise to anyone who has gotten on a plane over this Thanksgiving weekend—flying in coach has become an increasingly miserable experience." So begins Michelle Higgins's New York Times story, "Class Conflict," on economy-class travel.

It's a horror story, featuring cramped legroom, suspended meal service, scarce pillows and blankets, narrow-body planes on long flights, and other indignities that have become standard features of flying.

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Even as the airlines upgrade their first- and business-class cabins with ever-plusher seats and meals designed by celebrity chefs, their focus in coach is exclusively on cutting costs. The thinking goes that a vast majority of consumers aren't willing to pay more for extra service or comfort.

As Higgins summarizes the airlines' attitude toward coach customers: "The fact is that airlines, flying so close to full capacity today, have realized that they really don't have to cater to economy passengers—most of whom are booking on price alone, and who increasingly have no real airline loyalty—because the cost of doing so would never be worth it in pure bottom-line terms."

In other words, we're getting exactly what we're willing to pay for. If what the airlines give us is shabby and uncomfortable, we have only ourselves to blame. We are the enemy, not the airlines.

There is undoubtedly some truth in such self-recrimination. But it isn't the whole truth.

The article cites American's "More Room Throughout Coach" initiative as proof positive that consumers won't pay more for extra legroom. (American stripped out seats in 2000 to free up more legroom across its entire fleet, but abandoned the scheme three years later, claiming it had been cost-ineffective.) But did American's experience really prove anything?

While they won't go on record as saying so, there are at least a few current and former American executives who feel strongly that the airline acted prematurely in reverting to its previous seating layout. Some claim the strategy was working; others are convinced that it would have been successful, given more time to prove itself.

Unfortunately, the airlines cling to the conviction that there's no profit in enhancing service in the coach cabin. And travelers give them little reason to think otherwise. Which leads to a gloomy forecast for coach-class flying: more of the same.

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