Like Charles Dickens’ famous opening line, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” In a counter post to one previously published today, I can prove that flying in 2018 is the best it has ever been. From first class suites at business class prices to a lie flat bed standard and economy domestic flights offered at cheaper prices than anytime in the last 22 years. There is a lot to love about flying in 2018, here is why it’s never been better.
Better Prices Than Ever
From the bargain basement flights to the best in first class, flying has never been this affordable – literally. In some cases, it’s easy to see for anyone. I flew four colleagues back from a work trip because it was faster than driving and the flights from Tampa to Pittsburgh ran just… $76.76 for all four passengers. Granted we had to pay for some equipment they checked underneath the plane, so we can spread that $80 over their fare and we are still under $40 per person a week prior to the flight with checked bags. Even they were shocked. We calculated what it would have cost us to drive them back and even if we had a vehicle in Tampa it wasn’t close to as cheap as it was to fly.
The naysayers, however, will shrug off any price from Spirit, Allegiant or Frontier even if it was genuinely free as being more expensive because of the extras you have to pay (whether it’s true or not) to have an on-par experience with the traditional carriers. Those naysayers would be wrong.
Current flight prices using inflation-adjusted dollars have never been this affordable in modern history. Factually, statistically, without any emotion or suspicion it just costs less to fly today than ever before (data sets I have located originate in 1995 but historically it has been even more expensive). But because the naysayers can be so annoying, let’s put together an anecdotally-accurate example. Assume that in addition to very inexpensive fares, add the cost of seat selection ($20), a carry-on ($30) and a single checked bag ($25) against those historic prices so that we are comparing the price and product with then and now. It is worth noting, however, that American, Delta, United and Alaska all charge for seat selection and checking a bag with Southwest the lone holdout still fighting the good fight (for the extreme over-packers). Check out the following data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics that supports this claim (you may have to click next page to see all available data).
|Year||1Q Average Fare in constant 2017 dollars ($)||Year-to-Year Percent Change in Average Fare (1Q to 1Q) (%)||Cumulative Percent Change in Average Fare (1Q 1995 to 1Q of each year) (%)||Percent Change in Average Fare to 1st Quarter 2017 (%)|
Experiences for those in coach are customizable in a way that the premium cabins are not. If you want to have the same legroom as domestic first class, you can pay more for an economy plus (or equivalent) seat in a bulkhead or an exit row. If you don’t check a bag (I do just a couple of times per year) why pay for it every time you fly (as is the case with Southwest)? In fact, Matthew flew Spirit and added plenty of extras on a trans-con redeye to get him closer to a premium economy experience for less than coach on the legacy carriers.
When my family flies within Europe we will happily get on a Ryan Air flight because we can customize our experience affordably and just pay for the parts that matter to us. For example, We have no qualms about an hour through Europe for €20/person because instead of paying €100/person on British Airways, we can afford to add early boarding €10, a checked bag (so that I don’t have to battle at the gate with the staff and the sizers) €20, and even throw in some Pringles and a coke for another €10. My total expense for a comparable flight with more amenities on Ryan Air (using this example) comes in at just €60 adding all the extras I can (they offer priority security but even at another €5 it just isn’t worth it – there’s nearly no advantage at all). In fairness to Ryan Air, I am now on a newer plane than I would be with British Airways, I have more space at my seat, a comparable snack and drink, and the carry-on vs. checked bag is really a non-issue because I’m coming out 40% ahead.
My wife and I have talked about going to Europe for the weekend on WOW! Air and just buying cheap clothes when we get there, donating them before we leave because it would be cheaper than checking luggage. Going to Europe for a weekend once was reserved for the ultra-rich, now, it’s available for the ultra-cheap. Norwegian and WOW! Really have opened up the market for affordable trans-Atlantic flights on a level previously reserved for mistake fares. British Airways now flies $300 roundtrip fares from Barcelona to San Francisco/Oakland and LAX on their discount brand Level.
It’s not just Economy customers enjoying historically low prices. British Airways routinely offers round trips for around £1000 (sometimes less) in modern business class seats. In fact, just in the last five years, business class seat prices have been dramatically reduced while the hard product has improved. Star Alliance Partner TAP has offered coach flights from Boston to Lisbon for $400 round trip with some consistency but also offered one-ways for half the price and business for about $400 each way – that would be unheard of just a few years ago and in 2018 it will only become more pervasive. La Compangie (discount Business Class airline between Paris/London and New York) have offered fares for €999 each when buying a pair of seats or unlimited flights for a year at $35,000.
But it’s easy to get lost in the noise that surrounds the discount carriers but legacy carriers are competing at those levels too. I am personally shopping flights from New York to Barcelona in the near future. Direct flights from JFK on American run at or below $500 within a few dollars of the discounters. However, unlike with the discount carriers, I can apply systemwide upgrades and secure business class seats. This is the first time such a possibility is widely available.
In 2018, a true middle class between business and coach has emerged. Premium economy has come a long way from just extra legroom. Just a few years ago it was nearly revolutionary when Virgin Atlantic offered their premium economy passengers a better meal, then some of the Asian carriers with a separate curtain and cabin. Seats now are akin to domestic first class seats with in-seat chargers, adjustable headrests, comparable recline or better, and a foot rest that I don’t have now as I type this from 1F on an American Airlines domestic aircraft.
Singapore offers a true distinction in service with an amenity kit and elevated meal options, Air France will let you select from a menu and offers an impressive wine list. Seats are wider but not as wide as business class and not as tight as coach.
The best part of Premium Economy for those that don’t fly so often, it is sold routinely for $1200-$2000 for a trans-Atlantic flight. While I just used examples above of business class trans-Atlantic seats for less than that, those business class fares are limited to the sale conditions which will operate and off-peak periods for the carrier while Premium Economy is available at those levels with more consistency. There is a group of customers out there who are comfortable paying $1500-2000 for a seat for their summer European vacation but would never spend $4,000 on an eight-hour flight. Premium Economy suits them well and benefits the airline extracting incremental revenue from a customer that is not directly related to flight time or seat availability. Prior to this year, however, the product was not mature enough to really stand on its own, now with more carriers adding the cabin and competing on hard product – there truly is a differentiation between coach and premium economy.
American Airlines has seen enough growth in the segment to refit their long haul fleet and, in the case of their 777-300ER flagship aircraft, they have added premium economy seats at the cost of coach seats instead of business class. That’s telling – American sees more premium demand than coach demand on some of their longest and most profitable routes and will grow the Premium Economy cabin and invest in the product to serve the market.
If you’re a frequent flyer in premium cabins and come across the dreaded “Recliner” first class as opposed to a lie flat bed, you might accidentally miss your flight and have to be rebooked on another aircraft. Delta’s new business class product is among the best in the world with a closed-door suite. Qatar’s newest product has four seats that can allow for family dining and two separate double beds.
To avoid beating around the bush, I only learned of United’s limited hard product business class offering after I status matched to them and their product is just not up to snuff (2-4-2 in business class or 2-2-2 on Dreamliners?). Even so, that product absolutely exceeds what was available on other carriers just a few years ago and while United is not being swift with their cabin retrofit, we will still see more of their Polaris product in 2018 creating a better experience for the world’s second largest airline.
Even JetBlue has added more aircraft and flights with Mint Class (just wait until these go trans-Atlantic from Boston) offering closed-door suites. These domestic flights (and some Caribbean) are available for reasonable rates, sometimes cheaper than coach on other airlines. In particular, trans-continental flights feature Mint class flights from $499-599 each way. Depending on what other carriers offer for the flight time and day, this could be even less expensive than flying on American which now offers less than 40 purely coach seats on their A321T (with the rest being Main Cabin Extra, Business Class or First Class). If those seats fill up, check Mint out for a better deal and better experience.
Paid business class customers can snag chauffeured rides from some Middle East carriers to the airport and then to their hotels when they land. Business class lounges offer showers, food, drinks, free checked bags and priority services. While these are not new in 2018, the price for business class is historically low. The previously submitted chart shows only coach domestic flights, but if international business class were included the cost would be substantially lower. Consider that a reasonable price for business class to Asia from the US East Coast used to be between $3,000-4,000 just a few years ago. Now, that same flight can be purchased for under $2,000 routinely and sometimes as low as $1,500. I have personally purchased two fares that were not mistakes (though it can be hard to tell from time-to-time) at under $1,500 (Toronto to Beijing in business class on American and Los Angeles to Bangkok on Qatar).
While US carriers are, for the most part, getting rid of first class cabins, the rest of the world is upping their game. Etihad introduced cabins in 2016 that included a First Class Apartment – not to be confused with their super class, the Residence. The Apartment, the new gold standard for First Class travel, features a full bed, a two-seat couch, a massive TV and a closed door suite. The seat no longer reclines to become a bed, but rather the bed is stand alone in the room. Long haul travelers can separate out their sleeping space from their work or dining area and are even encouraged to bring another traveler (regardless of their cabin) to join them for meals in their Apartment. In 2018, Singapore will alter their First Class to replicate a similar model and improve upon it. Emirates has changed their First Class suite to include temperature controls and for those in the middle of the cabin, simulated windows to show the outside.
Lucky, of One Mile At A Time, recently booked Emirates First Class from Toronto to the other side of the world for less than $4,000. That was a business class fare in a recliner seat over half the distance just a few years ago (some of those fares still price the same way today). He even found Toronto to Milan (via Dubai) in Emirates first class for less than $3,000 USD.
First Class lounges are better than ever too. At American Airlines, try their Flagship Dining option which offers a private restaurant with a menu and plated meal prior to your flight. No need to worry about airplane food any more. Help yourself to breakfast after an overnight flight to London in British Airways’ Concorde Room after you’ve had a shower. Cathay Pacific offers guests private cabanas for up to two hours complete with rain shower and soaking tub as well as a private bathroom and sitting area with vanity. At Thai Airways you can treat yourself to a massage (while this is relatively inexpensive in the city you may not get a chance to get there) during a connection between flights and ride a shuttle through the sprawling Suvarnabhumi airport. Etihad will even press your clothes so that you’re ready for a meeting when you land before dropping you off at the hotel or office in a chauffeured car.
Even in the gilded age of the Pacific Clipper, a trans-pacific flying boat, flights have never been this comfortable, this luxurious for such an achievable price.
The aircraft are getting better too. The Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner boast excellent fuel efficiency and while these are not flying for the first time in 2018, there will be more of them in the skies than ever before. Not only do they make flights more comfortable with a better adjusted altitude experience (which helps to curb jet lag), more space and larger windows – they are also more fuel efficient. With more of them in the sky than ever before (both production lines are in full force) passengers can enjoy a more refreshing flying experience and the environment benefits too as they are 20% more fuel efficient than competing airframes. Replacing less fuel-efficient aircraft with sleek new models is better for the environment as well.
On domestic flights, the aircraft are getting better too. Cramped CRJ 200s and 700s are fading away and the replacement for these limited distance and smaller airframes are being filled with Embraer 170-195 models. These aircraft allow passengers to put their rollaboards back on the plane (at least on one side of the aircraft), feature a business class domestically and are more fuel efficient than their predecessors. The expansion of the regional jet to serve thinner markets was a breaking point for many flyers in the previous decade, but with Embraers filling the void, thin routes are more profitable for airlines and far more comfortable for flyers. In 2018, with more than ever before in the air and competition from Bombardier’s C-Series jets now under the Airbus umbrella, the future is bright.
Airlines like American continue to retire older frames like the MD-80 which will mostly conclude service for the Dallas-based carrier in 2018. At one point less than five years ago, American flew more than 400 of these tired aircraft around the country, and while I lament that the loss of their large business class cabins, I embrace new aircraft reliability.
According to a survey submitted by a reader, customer satisfaction is at the highest level since 1995. While I have not been able to ascertain the origin of the data set and I speculate that it would be difficult to to determine 2017 comprehensive numbers so close to the end of the year, some of it does make sense. Allegiant, which reportedly experienced better customer service numbers than United in 2017 according to the survey, reflects a shift in what is important to some flyers. Allegiant flies from smaller markets to sunny destinations like Des Moines, Iowa to Florida or Lincoln, NE to Vegas. By offering affordable prices direct from smaller airports on leisure travel days, passengers that would either drive to a bigger airport or pay more for a connecting flight can now get big city prices direct from home. That’s bound to make customers happy.
What do you think? Is 2018 the best of times or the worst of times to fly?