It’s glitzy. It’s glam. And it’s way up there in the prestige stakes. With hopping on a plane now something everyone can do, notwithstanding the current pandemic, just how have the airlines kept something back that’s a bit special? We thought we’d investigate.
In the beginning
The first commercial airline actually began in January 1914. The Benoist Aircraft Company had one plane, and could carry one passenger, which it did twice a day, six days a week, between St Petersburg and Tampa, Florida. The flights were sold out four months in advance, but by April the same year, as the weather turned and folk were heading back north again, the airline shut up shop and that was that.
However, the eyes of the world had been watching, and in 1919, Air Transport & Travel (AT&T) made its inaugural flight with a WW1 plane between London and Paris. Again, they had room for one passenger; though they did squeeze two in for later flights.
This began a trend of converting old war planes, which continued for a few years, with some eventually able to carry 14 passengers; who sat in wicker chairs in an ornately decorated lounge. Then, by the 1930s, this had stretched to 38 passengers, and so the battle for comfort began.
It was the development of the DC-3 in the latter half of that decade that totally revolutionised aviation, however. The concept of commercially viable passenger flying had begun to grow; no longer were freight or mail the only reasons for planes to fly. Carpets were introduced, as were in-plane toilets, flight attendants, and sumptuous multi-coursed meals. Plus it will come as no surprise that tickets were phenomenally expensive; often equalling 5% of an annual salary.
World War II
With the focus on aviation during the war, however, things improved significantly for people keen to hop from place to place by air. The DC-3 revolution had caught the imagination, and the military had bought more than 10,000 of an equivalent for the war effort, the C-47, and then started to sell them off after the war. New airlines sprang up, converting these military beasts into passenger planes. Pressurised cabins had also appeared, and thus suddenly planes could fly higher whilst tackling the weather with grace. Their ability to carry far more weight had also grown, and of course they were much faster too. At last the point had been reached whereby to be commercial they needed to be able to carry more people. The sheer prestige of being able to buy a ticket was no longer enough.
Coach class was introduced, but there was a problem. During the 1940s, carriers were actually not allowed to charge multi-level fares. They found a partial work around this, of course, and basically flew different routes. The short hops cost less, and came with a lower standard of service.
Multi-level fares crept in
This all changed in the 1950s, however, and the multi-fare flight battle began. You had the choice of Standard Class or Coach Class; the latter being the poor cousin, though still pretty plush in comparison to Economy these days. Note… the same sized seats were used for both!
It wasn’t until the mid-fifties that cabin configurations began to change to suit different fares. TWA were the trail blazers on this, introducing separate cabins according to class. The higher class was roomier, had dressing rooms and beds, and copious amounts of food on offer. The luxurious end of the market was shaping up.
Focus on safety
The next two decades started to focus on flight safety, however, and the capacity of planes grew. The lower class riders began to pack in, accepting less service in return for the ability to travel. Mind you, it has to be said that First Class had now also lost some of its bells and whistles. The beds disappeared and were replaced by upright, front-facing seats, and the cabin size was reduced. All this was compensated for by a very high level of service and superb food, but attitudes to flying had shifted anyway. The days of dressing up for a flight had disappeared, and practical comfort had taken over. Even First Class passengers began to dress down.
Fare structures also changed. Originally, when there were just two levels of service, the price differential was perhaps 50%. But from the 1970s, this gap began to widen to as much as a ten fold difference.
Interestingly, however, passenger volumes were usually below 70%. Whilst the earlier plan to balance the books had focused on adding more coach class capacity and packing the numbers in, carriers were finding this wasn’t working. Instead, it became apparent that enhanced premium services and fewer seats in certain sections might be the solution.
It was Pan Am that introduced an upper deck for its First Class passengers. But as planes continued to grow in size, other carriers made good use of the extra space that had been filled with empty seats with a new level of class – Business Class. At first, this new class wasn’t the plush version we know now, but it wasn’t the cramped coach version either; frequent fliers needed a little more comfort.
The new revolution began
In the late nineties, British Airways introduced a lie-flat sleeper-seat for First Class passengers. But the race was on. Business Class was developing its own momentum, and the concept of frequent flyers getting an upgrade started to damage revenues in that tier. Some airlines ditched First Class altogether, and nudged Business Class up a notch to justify bigger fares. The differentiation focused mostly on Coach Class being the lowest of the low, and anything above was significantly more expensive.
By the early 2000s, the battle switched yet again for carriers to attract the wealthier end of the market. This was, after all, where the money was. So in many ways, First Class turned about face. Back came the ability to lie flat. Suites with sliding doors and stunning entertainment systems were introduced… sometimes like full apartments with ensuites and two floors. And now, even flight attendants were being replaced by butlers on some airlines.
But, at the end of the day, it was as ever all about balancing the books. Businesses and corporates were the ones often footing the flight bills, and if they had a ‘no First Class’ policy, they weren’t going to pay. So airlines effectively tried to get round this be renaming their offering and, for some airlines, Business Class became Business First etc.
A final thought
Of course, airlines have to make profits. And we’ve all developed a taste for being able to get around the world quickly and easily. So there is no doubt that regardless of what you call it, travelling in the top class will make your journey far more enjoyable and relaxing than if you travel economy. Those passengers fortunate enough to be able to afford such luxury arrive at their destination more rested, often showered, and nicely fed. First class travel is a glorious thing, therefore, and ways need to be found to make it kind to the planet and sustainable. And, if these inventive airlines can manage that, we reckon everyone should take the opportunity once in their lives if they can.