On a recent trip to the US it occurred to me that BA’s 777 aircraft is a perfect illustration of our unequal distribution of resources, and how we might solve this conundrum for the benefit of everyone.
At 30 000 feet, the most precious resource (after breathable air) is leg room. And so BA’s 777 cabin is divided into four classes where passengers are granted increasing floor space in return for higher fares. It’s astonishing: over half the aircraft is dedicated to First and Business (Club) Class. I guess it reflects the wealth of the carrier’s host nation. But even so, the aircraft’s most precious resource is distributed rather unequally across four classes. This is not dissimilar to the general distribution of wealth although, to keep the same proportions on board, the front half would have fewer passengers than cabin staff.
Still, as it is 62 people at the front occupy the same space as 162 at the rear*. One passenger in First consumes about the same square footage as 4 or 5 people in Economy. It’s a miracle that such a back-loaded plane can even take off:
Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to experience all four classes on long-haul flights. Being 6’7” tall I (barely) survived overnight flights in Economy but I also cruised in Premium or stretched out in Business on corporate missions, and slept like a baby in First thanks to a couple of accidental upgrades.
But, just like diamonds, airline classes are bullshit.
Think about it. Flying is a miracle as well as a privilege – I always ask for a window seat so I can enjoy the view, which I’ll never tire of. This privilege is available whatever the class. And your prime goal is to go from A to B. First Class does not get there any faster. You might save 10 minutes at the immigration queue or baggage carousel, but that’s not worth the extra few grand.
When you think about it objectively, First Class in the air is equivalent to a youth hostel dormitory on the ground. Where else would you share a room with a dozen strangers? Ditto with airline lounges. If they really are that nice, why don’t cafés and pubs look more like them?
I call bullshit. It’s mostly a status thing. It’s outdated and we need to get over it. In an age of resource scarcity we can no longer afford this collective stupidity.
The solution is quite simple. If the whole aircraft was kitted out in Premium Economy, everybody would be happy enough. In Premium, even I can stretch out enough to avoid Deep Vein Thrombosis. Besides you get served half-edible food and entertained by a decent in-flight movie collection. Out of all classes, Premium Economy offers by far the best value for money. What’s more, if every seat on the plane was a Premium chair, you’d fit 134 more people on board than with the current layout – an increase of a whopping 60%! And because everybody would be treated equally, there would be no smugness or guilt at the front, and no despair or resentment at the back. Everybody would just “be”. Happy days!
But wait a minute. What about the cost?
Airline fares are notoriously complex so let’s make some assumptions here. Let’s say the average return fare for a typical long-haul flight is £700 for Economy, £1500 for Premium, £4000 for Business, and £8000 for First. So with the standard cabin layout the total fare would be around £450,000. In the airline business it’s notoriously difficult to make a profit, so let’s also assume that this is a fair return. Now, if we divide this figure by the number of seats in the all-Premium layout, that averages out at £1250 per seat. Outch.
When doing these sums you realise that people in First and Business Class actually subsidise the people in Economy through overinflated fares (no wonder airlines are keen to attract and retain these lucrative customers). Even if the nirvana of equality does not come true, this should provide at least some comfort for the rest of us.
But imagine if we could somehow pull off a one-class flight (and society). Would this be worth paying £1250 each? That’s almost twice the current Economy fare. If the wealth across our society was as equally distributed as the seats on this all-Premium airliner, would £1250 be affordable to all?
I guess it would. And it would more naturally reflect the true cost of flying, economically and environmentally, as well as make more efficient use of resources – in the case of the airliner, 60% more capacity.
What do you think? Do I need to get my head tested, or am I onto something?
* Correction 01Oct13: Not 54 at the front vs 160 at the rear, as posted originally (this was a gremlin that had slipped in during early drafting). So 14 First + 48 Business = 62 seats, and 40 Premium + 122 Economy = 162 seats.