Oh, You Fly First Class?

Ryan Heshmati

September 9, 2022

With first-class cabin airline tickets fetching multiples over the fares of economy seats, an artificial division of travelers has been created, by airlines, in order to line their pockets. Occasionally, when discussing travel with others, the topic of ticket class comes up, many economy or economy plus regulars gawk at those who regularly book seats in the front of the plane. The disclosure is often met with a comment to the tune of “Oh, you fly first class?” To fly that way has seemingly become a choice others not only resent fellow passengers for but also use as a basis for making assumptions.

A study from Katherine A. DeCelles of the University of Toronto and Micheal I. Norton of Harvard Business School found when non-first class passengers must walk by the elite cabin to get to their seat, instances of “air rage” increase by a multiple of 2.18. Similar to any other situation in which people are bothered by what they do not and cannot have, first-class airfare has been shown to bring out those same feelings. With increasing economic inequality, every reminder of that truth angers many Americans. Interestingly, it was also noted passengers in first class became more guarded when their lower fare fellow travelers walked through their cabin. The social division works both ways, alienating both groups.

While many assume a first-class ticket indicates wealth, that is not necessarily the case. Statista’s Alexander Kunt published 2017 data that indicates there is only a two-percentage-point difference in the percentage of travelers who fly first class making below $100,000 a year and above it, thirteen percent versus fifteen percent. This may be explained by miles and other rewards programs, which are usually earned through work-related travel, potentially being responsible for the premium seat. Of course, there will always be those who are paying full price and can do so because they are wealthier, but they do not deserve resentment or negative feelings because of it; a curtain and larger seats should not be enough to warrant the aforementioned “air rage” increases.

While the existence of different levels of seating and service may be upsetting to some, just like in any other airline cabin, those who fly in premium ones have a variety of reasons why they do so. The highly priced tickets do not always indicate highly paid ticket holders. Some may be recipients of free upgrades, miles, or have opted to pay more because they value the service, regardless, all passengers arrive at the same time, and it need not be a cause of  “air rage.”