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Cost, Comfort, Miles: What Matters Anyway?

For last month’s Q&A article, I spent time researching the optimal combination of price and comfort on the very long (approximately 15 hours) flight between the West Coast and Australia.

The underlying assumption was that if ever there were an occasion that warranted the extra cost of flying business class, it was just such a lengthy flight. But compared to the cost of a coach ticket, all of the business-class options, with or without using miles, looked vastly overpriced. Which brought me back to the problem that precipitated the search in the first place: the airlines’ failure to provide a comfortable coach-class product.

Over the years, I have heard it suggested that airlines purposely make their coach seating subtly unbearable, as a way of surreptitiously pressuring travelers to pay more for business or first class. While I generally don’t give much credence to such theories, the case in question gave the idea a new lease on life.

Regardless of why coach class is so uncomfortable, the fact remains that on most airlines, long flights in the back of the plane are unpleasant. But now there’s an airline that’s offering to make coach class more luxurious than it’s ever been. The question now becomes whether miles, money, or comfort will be the top priority in your booking decision.

Trip planning used to be a snap

At the top of my current to-do list is the following entry: make travel arrangements (for a trip to attend an upcoming travel-industry conference).

This used to be a pretty straightforward undertaking, developed and refined over my three decades of frequent, self-managed business travel. I would begin by checking schedules of the airline in whose mileage program I had earned the most miles. If that carrier had a nonstop or direct flight, reasonably timed, in all likelihood I would book it. If the only available flights required a connection, or if the fare were obscenely high, I would check schedules and prices at the airline with which I had the second-largest cache of frequent flyer miles. And so on.

I would also routinely check prices at Southwest or other low-fare carriers. But the bottom-fishing was more hypothetical than actual. I wanted to know how cheaply the trip could be made, even though I was fully prepared to pay more. The trade-off was clear—a cheap cattle car and no useful miles, on the one hand, and a pricier, more comfortable trip including a hot meal and bankable frequent flyer miles on the other.

Such clarity has gradually eroded, replaced by the kind of muddy ambiguity that now leaves me in a veritable tizzy, pining for the “good old days.”

JetBlue changed the rules

In today’s travel marketplace, the choice is considerably more complicated. The catalyst for this change is JetBlue and its new approach to coach-class seating.

In November of last year, JetBlue completed a project that fundamentally altered the assumptions about the product on offer from low-cost airlines. The airline removed a single row of seats in each of its Airbus A320 jets. That seemingly simple move added two inches of legroom to two-thirds of their seats (the back-most two-thirds, in case you’re planning a JetBlue flight).

Big deal? You bet!

Say you were comparing flights offered by one of the majors—take Delta—and JetBlue.

On JetBlue, you will fly on a shiny new plane, with comfy leather seats featuring seatback TVs. You have a 66-percent chance of enjoying two or three more inches of legroom than you would have on Delta. And for this superior service, you will, on average, pay less and be burdened with fewer fare restrictions. The only problem: a frequent flyer program that features miles that expire after 12 months and limited earning and redemption opportunities.

With Delta—and, to be fair, with most legacy airlines—your flight will be operated with aircraft that may be as much as 20 or more years old. The coach seats, with very few exceptions, will be spaced two or three inches closer than JetBlue’s. There’s unlikely to be meal service (though JetBlue won’t feed you either). And here’s the capper: For this lesser service, you will be charged more.

It’s no wonder that the formerly “full-service airlines” have been driven to the brink of extinction by the discounters. Nor is it any wonder that many travelers have been driven to the brink of distraction by this blurring of the traditional distinctions between the competing species of airlines.

Of course, the major airlines still enjoy a distinct advantage in the mileage area. And while there’s no insurmountable hurdle to prevent the low-fare carriers from pumping up their programs and adopting a more consumer-friendly mileage-expiration policy—which would be a stake in the heart of the majors—there’s no indication that they’re inclined to move in that direction.

So for the time being, travelers will increasingly come face to face with a new value calculation, where superior comfort and low price are combined, improbably, on one side of the ledger, against truly useable miles on the other.

There’s no “right” answer. But the fact that the value equation can be framed in such unequal terms spells trouble for the mainline carriers, which once got the bulk of my business. Now, instead of feeling that I’m paying more money to get more comfort and miles, I fret that I’m paying more just for the miles, and sacrificing comfort in the bargain.

The miles are, in effect, compensation for higher fares and less comfortable seating. As much as I value miles, I don’t value them that much.

So on that next business trip? I’ll be stretching my legs on JetBlue.

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