You have probably heard the term “Race to the Bottom” applied to the big three US carriers quite a bit. The term was probably fair, as airlines in the US were consistently offering fewer and fewer amenities to economy passengers in order to save money during the post 9/11 Period of Aviation Suckiness, as I like to call it. However, I would like to argue that this Race to the Bottom is, indeed over. But first, some background.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the aviation industry in the US took a turn for the worse. Within the space of 9 years, every one of the largest US airlines (Northwest, Delta, United, American, Continental, US Airways) filed for bankruptcy. Many smaller carriers also went under. Many airlines even briefly flirted with cost cutting measures more commonly associated with low-cost carriers: for a time, US Airways charged for non-alcoholic beverages, United introduced new, lower-paying contracts for their pilots and flight attendants unions to cut costs, and American began cutting corners on maintenance.
Free food (even those small bags of pretzels and the like) was gone and legroom in coach was cut back (American eliminated “More Room Throughout Coach”, a pre-9/11 program which involved decreasing the number of seats on some of their aircraft and increasing legroom, and began cramming in more seats than ever). Down in the back, it was not happy times.
However, gradually, the airline industry began to recover. Several mergers turned the “big six” into the “big three.” Airlines became profitable again, so American, Delta, and United would be able to focus on making money and not on avoiding oblivion. Since there was now more money to throw around, airlines could begin to invest in their products again… which some took longer to do than others (looking your way, United).
While the process has certainly been slow, all of the big three are upgrading their inflight products. Delta now offers free inflight entertainment at every seat. American just made all inflight entertainment free (some older aircraft had personal televisions which you had to pay to use), and United’s newer aircraft feature personal TV’s at each seat. Delta, American, and United offer free snacks in economy, and airlines seem to have changed their methods of increasing revenue from cramming in more seats to diversifying onboard products. Legroom, while still tight, is not getting worse, which is better than how it used to be. Back then, it seemed like you could just feel airlines’ profits shrinking… and your legroom shrinking with it.
I mentioned that airlines seem to be diversifying their onboard products in order to generate more revenue. What I mean by this is that the big three now seem to be trying to offer a product for everyone. In the coming years, Delta and American’s domestic aircraft will feature business (and first on some American flights), premium economy, extra-legroom economy, normal economy, and basic economy (a “no-frills” fare option where you get a normal economy seat with very few of the benefits that come with a standard coach ticket). That certainly is a lot of options, so you are kind of offering something for everyone. Want more legroom? Try economy plus. Want to pay as little as possible? Try basic economy. Want to just get there for a reasonable amount and still have some limited benefits? Try normal economy. Want a comfortable seat but don’t want to pay for business class? Try premium economy.
And so it goes on. US carriers seem interested in providing something for everyone, meaning they can make more money (if you offer premium economy, you squeeze a higher fare out of you people who want a more comfortable seat than economy but don’t want to pay for business, and who would otherwise pay for economy). This means that airlines can now make money by having fewer seats, meaning they don’t need to cram in as many standard coach seats as possible, meaning legroom and overall space in economy is better. That is the new money-making strategy for US airlines: have as many options as possible, and you will make money even with less seats.
It is worth noting that the one airline of the big three which hasn’t really latched on to the diversification strategy is United. While United may be slower to change, they still are working on improving their inflight product, which is good. However, US airlines are notorious followers and I don’t think it will be long before United does exactly the same things as AA and DL have.
So, if airlines are profitable again and seem to be investing in their economy class product, is the “Race to the Bottom” over? I would say yes. Legroom has largely remained the same in normal economy, free snacks are back, inflight entertainment is widely available and usually free, and there are now more options for consumers. In short, flying coach is a much more pleasant experience than it used to be. And I think we can all agree that that’s a good thing.