Domestic first class (in the United States) and international first class are simply not in the same analytical category. One offers a little more room with marginally better recline and a potential hot meal. The other typically features a fully-lie flat bed, privacy screens, a wide range of entertainment, and an extensive menu of food or drinks. And while the decline of the domestic first class experience has been well-documented, it’s not the greatest loss in the world; after all, if you can’t sip champagne on that flight from Houston to St. Louis, you’ll still live to fly another day.

But anyone who has sat in both seats, or heck, even read extensively about how the products differ, can attest to the fact that international first class, especially on an airline that really cares about the customer experience, is a completely different animal.

So I was disappointed to open my hotel room door yesterday morning, find the obligatory copy of USA Today, and read Roger Yu’s article lumping the two products into the same basket. Normally, USA Today’s travel coverage is top notch. So while I take no pleasure in calling them out, it’s important to call ‘em like I see ‘em.

The article begins with a claim about the decline of the front of the plane:

A small but growing list of airlines are eliminating or reducing rows in the most expensive part of their aircraft as customers increasingly look for cheaper seats.

Eliminating! Who is cutting the “$15,000 seats” — the article’s terminology, not mine … ? The article’s first answer: AirTran. AirTran? This, assuming that the merger with Southwest will go through. But AirTran does not sell flat-beds. Their “business class” seats are fairly typical domestic-American first-class seats. Wider leather seats with slightly more recline than coach. 37 inches of seat pitch, vs. 30 in coach. (Whoo.)

I could compare that to a truly top-notch first-class product like, say, Emirates’ personal first class suites on the A380, each with a sliding door for privacy. But that might be construed as unfair. So how about, American Airlines’ international first class product on their 777s: Instead of 37″ of pitch, they’ve got 92″. 92 vs 37? No contest!

It is simply not sensible to discuss domestic and international first class in the same article. Especially when the only evidence of a decline in domestic first class is a potential merger of two discount carriers.

The remainder of the article focuses on the legitimate reduction of first class in 3- or 4-class configurations. (Economy/Business/First or Economy/Premium Economy/Business/First). And indeed, airlines are slowly but surely phasing out first class seats in favor of (improved) business class seats.

And this comes as no surprise. Airlines have sunk r&d money into improving business class, and we’ve seen the results. Ten years ago, cradle seats were the norm on international business class. Now, the norm is flat beds, which were once just the domain of first class.

Except, of course, on domestic flights. Someone alert USA Today.

Categorized in: first class

Upgraded: Delta’s regional jets
Delta announced today that they would put first-class seats on all domestic flights of more than 750 miles. That means many RJs which thusfar had been single-cabin will be revamped to two-class service. Let the upgrades begin!

Upgraded?: The Concorde
The return of the supersonic airliner? Perhaps. But alas, only one of them. And you won’t be earning any miles to fly on this one. A team of French and British engineers are trying to resuscitate a mothballed plane, for a flyover at the 2012 London Olympic games.

Still Downgraded: American credit cards abroad
Chip-and-PIN. Still the nemesis of the American traveler, as I’ve been posting here since 2006. But every few months, the print media picks up the issue again. It’s USA Today’s turn this month. The U.S. credit card industry isn’t interested in joining the rest of the planet in adopting the chip-and-PIN standard, so American travelers will continue to face hassles and the inability to use their cards at vending machines. 2006… 2010… no change.

Downgraded: The science of airport security
A long but interesting read: A detailed history and critique in the journal Nature of the use of airport deception detection — the effort to find the bad guys at security checkpoints by examining their facial tics and behavior. (Turns out, it’s based on the highly controversial and disputed research by Paul Ekman, on whom the TV show “Lie to Me” is based. Wacky!)

Upgraded: Colorful reasons for flight delays
If you were flying into or out of Washington National on Tuesday morning, here’s why: A biplane crashed on the runway. And it’s caught on tape, filmed by a Washington Post journalist who was onboard as part of a film promotion. (I’m sure that film review will be super-positive now, eh?)

Categorized in: chip-and-PIN

american eagle crj 700 Both Upgraded and Downgraded: Regional jets with American Airlines/American Eagle
It’s a good-news/bad-news scenario. American Airlines’ regional carrier American Eagle is upgrading the interiors of its Canadair CRJ-700 regional jets, to include 9 first-class seats. 25 existing planes will be converted; 22 new planes are on order. All are expected to be online by July 2.

Putting a first-class cabin on regional jets puts them more in line with the “exPlus” product United has been offering on its larger regional jets for a few years now. (No Economy Plus, though.)

It’s a good thing for upgraders. And the economy seats on the newly-delivered planes will eke out an additional inch of legroom, due to slimline seats.

That means new upgrade opportunities, yes, but… American is removing mainline aircraft — the ones with real first-class cabins — and replacing them with CRJs.

And some of those routes, especially from Chicago, are high-density:

American Eagle will offer First Class service from its Chicago and Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) hubs. From Chicago, customers will experience First Class service on flights to Atlanta, Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., Newark, N.J., George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Oklahoma City, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Antonio, and Salt Lake City. From DFW, customers can fly First Class to Cleveland, Milwaukee, Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in Bentonville/Springdale, Ark., and Little Rock, Ark.

Atlanta? DC? Newark? Yikes. It’s getting harder and harder to avoid regional jets.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s great that the CRJ product is being improved, and this sounds like a meaningful improvement. On the other hand, CRJs are inferior to mainline: more likely to be canceled, more prone to turbulence, smaller overhead bins, no ovens (for the first class peeps)… the list goes on.

At least there will be hot nuts!


airtran traytable ads Upgrades and Downgrades: Tray table ads, A380 high and low, forfeiting Amex points, and more
Downgraded: The view on AirTran
While US Airways has long had ads on the tops of their tray tables, which you only see if you pull the tray down, AirTran is going a step further and pasting ads on the undersides — the side you see during takeoff and landing, when those traytables are in their “upright and locked position.” The Ryanairification of American air travel is nearly complete. Stay classy!

Downgraded: Premium seats on Qantas
Qantas is cutting the number of premium seats. No surprises there.

Upgraded: A380 first class seats
The Global Traveller has flown the A380 on Singapore, Qantas, and Emirates, and offers a comparison of all three products. Well played, sir. Well played.

Downgraded: Airbus A380, not so premium
In direct contrast to the previous item, how about an A380 equipped with 840 seats? Air Austral, which travels between La RĂ©union in the Indian Ocean and Paris, has ordered two single-class A380s, jam-packed with passengers.

Upgraded: Tokyo
Forget Paris, New York, San Francisco, London, Chicago… Tokyo gets the nod for the city with the most top Michelin-starred restaurants.

Downgraded: Flying into de facto lava fields
Horrible event, but a great headline: “Plane Misses Runway, Lands in Lava“… The accident occurred in Goma, Congo, where the runway was cut in half by the lava flow from a 2002 volcanic eruption. Apparently, there were a few injuries, but thankfully no deaths.

Downgraded: Amex cards’ point/mile programs
Want to earn the miles or points from an affinity credit card purchase? Be sure to pay the bill on time. American Express is withholding the points if the cardholder doesn’t pay the bill by the due date. Customers forfeit the points, unless they pay a $29 reinstatement fee, in addition to late charges and interest. This isn’t just Amex: JPMorgan Chase has a similar policy with their United Visa. Expect this to be the norm. And try to pay that bill on time.

Downgraded: Expectations
Five-star hotel not living up to its standards? How about a zero-star hotel instead? The lodging — a converted windowless bunker in Switzerland — is also an art project. Zero-star is a cute idea, and it’s certainly fun. (Spin the Wheel of Fate!) And cheap: $9. I like their motto: “The only star is you.” Nonetheless, I believe the correct term for this facility is “hostel” (or “backpackers” for the Aussies/Kiwis in the house). See a video of the ho(s)tel below. Actually, come to think of it, it’s actually nicer than some hostels I stayed in during college.

Upgraded: British Airways
Downgraded: “cheaper” airlines

A (non-scientific) study by the Times of London found that fares were lower on British Airways than on Ryanair. And that was before they took things like luggage fees and check-in fees into account. This just reinforces the importance of price comparison (which Ryanair and its ilk tend to make difficult by keeping their fares out of the global distribution systems). As I’ve always argued, don’t assume that a “low-cost” airline is automatically lower than others. (Thanks to reader J!)

Upgraded: Skycaps
A court has affirmed that American Airlines harmed Boston skycaps’ tip income when it imposed a $2 curbside check-in fee — which went to the airline, not the skycaps. (The $2 fee was dropped in May 2008, when American started charging a fee for all checked bags.)

Upgraded: Inflight wi-fi
In the last few weeks, Virgin America reduced the cost of its inflight wifi. Lufthansa hinted at relaunching global satellite-based wifi using Panasonic’s technology (essentially duplicating the service it once offered via Connexion by Boeing). And another satellite provider, Row 44, which has tested service on Southwest and Alaska Airlines, received approval from the FCC to offer its services.

Downgraded: Continental Express
Another “trapped passengers” story… Continental Express flight gets diverted, keeps passengers on board for NINE HOURS. I mean, really, nine hours? On a regional jet?? There is no excuse for that duration of delay without allowing passengers to disembark. None. I don’t believe that this is the number one problem facing passengers today, but stories like this make it clear that some time limits to passenger trappings do need to be part of any passenger rights bill.

Downgraded: Some of the best premium seats in the sky
Cathay Pacific, which offers one of the best premium class products in the air, is cutting back the number of first and business class seats.

us1549 coach vs first class First class comfort doesnt end after ditching into the Hudson
(via Reddit; thanks rcjordan!)

Categorized in: US Airways