The Joys of First-Class Travel

If I informed you that for the next nine hours I would confine you to a small shipping crate (small enough to lie down in – but only just wider than your body), it would likely cause you no end of alarm. Yet the privilege of this tiny – cubicle experience is something that tens of thousands of business-class air travellers pay a premium for every day (a premium of around $2,500+ vs. economy fare) – all because of some psychological quirks and clever marketing. Normally, being confined to a coffin-sized box for an extended period of time is perceived as something incredibly unpleasant.  However, considered in the context of an airplane, this box is suddenly the very height of luxury and this realignment of values is encouraged in every way possible by the airlines to justify the inflated cost.

Air travel can be an interesting thing; there are few similar situations (outside of prison) where humans allow themselves to be confined in such close proximity for such a long duration of time. This unfamiliar situation of being packed into a small container with hundreds of fellow passengers greatly shifts our perception of reality. We are pulled into the here and now, and forced to focus on our surroundings; getting enough overhead space, proximity to crying babies, the relative comfort of our footwear or someone kicking our seat all suddenly become major issues in our lives.

Our in-flight environment both narrows and sharpens our focus on small things that might not otherwise matter; a full can of soda, available anywhere and valued at one dollar or less, is normally of such little importance outside of the aircraft that we give it little thought. Yet, in the context of getting on an airplane, receiving the whole can of soda when we order a drink may sway our evaluation of the service on the airline. The fact that the spatial confinement becomes our new reality means that the values we place on basic functions – eating, sleeping, sitting, reading – are all viewed through a different lens, and our basic senses are focused on our new, narrow world. This hypersensitivity means that everyone has at least one story about how the person they sat next to on a flight was ‘the worst ever’, despite the fact that their relative proximity (and our annoyance with them) may in fact, be both cause and effect on our judgement of them relative to other passengers. The closer they are, the more we notice everything wrong with them.

The real opportunity lies in maintaining and increasing the perception that economy is a relatively different experience than business and reminding both classes of this difference.

If the focus on our senses were not enough, confinement to the airplane means we are also subject to a quirky perception of time. Humans are sensitive to the passage of time in the near future, meaning that anticipation of the food cart down the aisle in economy class can be an agonizing process, while a comparable duration in time at a ‘real’ restaurant would normally cause us no trouble.

It is this hypersensitivity and unique need state that the rise of first and business class seating aims to answer. While the aforementioned cubicle seating may sound unpleasant under other circumstances, it suddenly becomes the height of relative luxury when considered against alternatives in air travel. And although first-class seats are often less than 5 percent of the total seats available on long-haul flights, these premium seats often generate 40 to 50 percent of airline revenue, according to Peter Morris, the chief economist at Ascend, an aviation consulting firm. This means that airlines look for opportunities to promote the expensive fares as much as possible.

As with any product or service, airlines focus on satisfying the functional and emotional needs of consumers:

  • Functional needs for travellers include things like “Arrive fresh for your meeting” or “Higher level of comfort”, meaning that the experience may translate to longer-reaching personal benefits outside the plane. The best seats also tend to be at the front of the plane, where turbulence and engine noise are minimized. However, perhaps one of the greatest, rarely mentioned functional benefits is the relative isolation from our fellow passengers; our narrow range of focus is removed from the person sitting beside us and refocused on the white tablecloth, glass of champagne and slippered feet. With fewer unpleasant distractions, we can focus on our preferred method of passing the time (work, sleep, audio/video/Sudoku etc.), without being caught up in the actions of others. Most of the premium seats are staggered – reducing the likelihood that another passenger will lie within your field of view.
  • Emotional needs addressed by premium seating include the feeling of status and esteem. Being up-front gives the individual a feeling of luxury – they are succeeding at life! As a guy who regularly sits up-front thanks to the flying/loyalty related to my job, I can share with you the guilty pleasure of watching other passengers on their way back to economy class; the satisfaction is one part schadenfreude, and one part reinforcement that those of us sitting in business class are indeed, a bit special. I might speculate that the deliberate procession of economy class passengers through the business section, (even if more appropriate hatches further back on the plane are available) may be both for the benefit of business class AND economy passengers; the former are reminded of the volume of passengers in the aft of the plane (and subsequently, their relative status), and the latter that paying a bit more DOES yield a different experience than the one awaiting in economy class.

In reality, it should be stated that in relative terms, the experiences themselves are somewhat fleeting and the benefits of business class do not long extend past exiting the plane and picking up luggage. Hence, airlines have a challenge in front of them; while they need to present a relatively pleasant economy class experience, they also need to send subtle reinforcements that premium-class seating is superior on a tangible level – essentially by capping the relative comfort level of the lower fares to emphasize and preserve the differences.

The future of business-class airline travel will likely include further appeals to our hightened senses; sight (greater isolation), smell (aromatheroapy and cabin humidity to minimze jetlag), touch (material, flatbeds as standard), sound and taste (increasingly elaborate gourment creations). However, the real opportunity lies in maintaining and increasing the perception that economy is a relatively different experience than business and reminding both classes of this difference – even if the actual experience is both fleeting and in reality, minimal.

the author

Patrick Dunn

Patrick is head of multidisciplinary insight at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.

See Patrick’s full bio here