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First-class inequality

  • Lufthansa's new business-class seating. (New York Times)

It’s August, and Americans by the millions are cramming themselves into coach-class seats as they embark on their summer vacations. Those able to learn from adversity might ponder this: Airline seating may be the best concrete expression of what’s happened to the economy in recent decades.

Airlines are sparing no expense these days to enlarge, upgrade and increase the price of their first-class and business-class seating. As the space and dollars devoted to the front of the planes increase, something else has to be diminished, and, as multitudes of travelers can attest, it’s the experience of flying coach. The joys of air travel — once common to all who flew — have been redistributed upward and are now reserved for the well-heeled few.

The new business-class seats that Lufthansa is installing convert to quasi-beds that are 6 feet 6 inches long and two feet wide, the New York Times’ Jad Mouawad reports. The price for working, eating, drinking and sleeping on this commodious couch, round-trip from Kennedy airport to Frankfurt and back, is a cool $5,000.

Lufthansa is hardly alone. Delta, United and American all have announced plans to upgrade their business-class seats for cross-country and transcontinental flights. Then there’s Emirates, which now sells first-class suites — complete with a shower — that go for a tidy $19,000 on the New York-Dubai route.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, low-cost airlines that re-create the thrill of traveling in steerage are thriving, too. The new business model, apparently, is to shrink the seats, charge extra for everything and offer nothing for free that might be construed as an amenity. That’s certainly the credo of Spirit Airlines, which charges its benumbed passengers a fee for their carry-on bags, $3 for water and $10 for printing out boarding passes and whose seats don’t recline. Spirit boasts one of the highest profit margins in the industry and plans to expand by 15 percent to 20 percent every year for the next eight years, according to the Los Angeles Times. It also ranks dead last in customer satisfaction — indeed, in last year’s Consumer Reports survey, it had one of the lowest overall customer satisfaction scores of any company in any industry that the magazine had ever surveyed.

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