"Its the Seat, Stupid"

Minutes before a recent Hawaiian Airlines flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles, a boarding lounge announcement offered business class upgrades for $250 per person. The flight was not full - there would be plenty of room in coach - and yet a line of about 20 people formed instantly to get the eight or 10 available seats. With more room, a choice of movies, free drinks and a fancier menu - though not necessarily better food - these travelers hoped to lessen the pain of five and half hours trapped in a metal tube.

I know the feeling. When confronted with a 10 to 12-hour West Coast-Europe flight, I want one of those big chairs. Forget the food, the movies, or the personal service, because frankly it's not all that much better than economy. I just want to avoid that jam-packed coach cabin and get some sleep. To slightly alter the right-on catch-phrase of the 1992 presidential election, "its the seat, stupid." My flight goal is to get to the other end ready to tackle the baggage recovery, the rental car counter and a couple hours of driving. Unfortunately, there are no $250 business class upgrade offers at the departure gates of transatlantic flights. That's a line I would be happy to join.

Swissair's website currently quotes a San Francisco-Zürich roundtrip business fare at about $7,800. Perhaps you, like me, wonder how airlines are able to maintain such amazingly high fares for a service that offers just one significant advantage over economy - a larger seat. The answer is easy, few pay that much.

Many business class travelers are frequent flyers who get upgrades because they're the airlines very best customers. Some biz class flyers work for companies who have negotiated special deals for their traveling employees. Others are there by virtue of mileage saved in frequent flyer accounts (a coach-to-business class transatlantic upgrade is typically 50,000 miles), and still others have purchased discount tickets through a consolidator, or have obtained tickets through special two-for-one credit card deals. Or, your business class seat mate could be an airline employee.

Recently we flew business class, San Francisco to Zürich. When we boarded in Zürich for the return, the cabin was about a third full. The MD-11 configuration in business class is two-three-two. Maybe 60% of the "twos" were occupied and the center section of "threes" was nearly empty. Ten minutes before departure, however, the cabin filled with a rush. A few of the new arrivals were kids in their early 20s who wore jeans and slung backpacks into the overhead bins. Did they pay $7,800 each for their seats? Though I've learned never to judge a book by its cover, I don't think so. It wasn't so much their youth and their gear but their demeanor that gave them away. Many had been assigned to middle seats and they took their places without so much as a glance around to see if an aisle or window was available. They just looked happy to be there. You don't pay $7,800 for an airline ticket and then find yourself in a middle seat without at least a pained look crossing your face.

Obviously, the economy cabin had been oversold and passengers were upgraded, a last-resort for Swissair, but one that still happens.

Did the influx bother me? Not in the least. I hadn't paid $7,800 for my seat, either. However, considering it was April, a time when Swissair offered some extremely low coach fares, it did set up the ludicrous possibility of a passenger who had paid $400 for the flight sitting next to one who paid $7,800. It's very unlikely, but imagine if you forked over $7,800 and found yourself in a middle seat flanked by $400 payers, each on an aisle.

Consider, too, the plight of a fellow passenger in the seat ahead of me. After dinner, ready to sleep, he discovered his chair would not operate. Swissair's MD-11 business class seat tilts well back, but best of all a footrest/platform beneath the seat deploys to near horizontal position. It's not a bed but it's good enough that I can sometimes log as much as five or six hours sound sleep on an overnight flight. Despite attempts by the cabin crew to make it work, the man's footrest wouldn't budge from under the seat. Facing some nine sleepless hours until touchdown in Zürich, and seeing no empty seats elsewhere in the business class cabin, he asked if seats were available in first class. The attendant quickly replied that there were but an upgrade was not possible. She then brought a crew member's valise and a pillow as a substitute footrest and the man meekly accepted his fate. Did he pay $7,800 for his seat? Again, I don't think so or there would have been a ruckus and demands to see the captain.

Outside of using miles, there are a couple of ways to get into business class without paying the full load. For example, an American Express Platinum card holder can buy two business class tickets for the price of one on several transatlantic airlines, including Swissair. Diner's Club's Carte Blanche card has a two-for-one program with British Air. In addition, many airlines market business class seats to consolidators and tour operators who, after reselling them for less than half the airline's price, are still able to make a profit and pay commissions to travel agents. Many of these deals, however, require the purchase of other travel products such as hotel, car or rail - items you might be needing anyway.

So the advice today is don't pay retail for business class - almost nobody else does. RHB

June 2001