Not much seems to have changed in the airline industry if you fly in coach. Seats are still tight, planes are still delayed, and the soda is still—thankfully—free. But while the airline industry seems content to leave coach the way it is, first-class accommodations—especially those on international routes—have been growing ever more lavish. In addition to seats that transform into lie-flat beds (now considered de rigueur), some airlines have begun transforming first-class cabins into a collection of miniature suites, complete with sliding doors, desk lamps, and minibars.
Airlines are tripping over themselves to attract top-paying customers. While first- and business-class customers occupy only a small portion of seats on a plane, they make up 27 percent of airlines’ revenues. And pampering those in the front of the plane can serve to attract people to the more quotidian cabin.
“Creating a fabulous first-class product is one way to elevate a brand and make it seem special and different,” said Tim Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing. “Emirates, for example, has a positive reputation and this is partly shaped by its remarkable first-class amenities.”
“A large part of marketing is branding,” said Derek Rucker, an associate professor of marketing. “That is, consumers do make purchases based on the associations they have with the brand above beyond the product’s physical amenities.”
Some of those amenities do end up trickling to the back of the plane—like personal entertainment systems—but don’t expect more legroom or seats that recline more than a few inches. Those niceties take up space, and airlines cram in as many seats as they can to keep prices down. While adding extra leg room would seem to be an easy way to lure passengers, research shows most people ignore the extra leg room on flights shorter than six hours, preferring instead to go with the lowest fare.
“Economy is a difficult segment, because many travelers are focused on price alone,” Calkins said. “In that case, adding amenities to economy isn’t going to be a profitable move. A better product will lead to higher costs, putting you in a worse position versus competition.”
All this encourages airlines to continue cosseting first-class, but there is a fine line between creating a desirable halo product and overdoing it. “At some point, if coach is really bad then trying to use the premium first-class to rub off could backfire,” Rucker said. “For example, it might showcase how bad the brand is when it comes to coach. Given that businesses are doing this however, they may be adept at walking this fine line.”
Photo by s.yume