Put me in coach: The history of airline flight classes

Feb 22, 2020

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In an era where it seems like major airlines are doing their best to one-up each other on the least comfortable arrangements for passengers, it’s hard to believe that at one time, airlines were trying to outdo each other for the best in comfort, class and style. 

The golden age of flying in the 1950s and 60s was all glitz and glamour, full of gourmet meals, copious drinks, enough leg room to stretch out, and enough cigarette smoke to create a dreamy haze to reminisce through. Everyone was treated like a star.

Now, you’re lucky if the person in front of you doesn’t slam their chair down onto your knees while the person behind you has their bare feet propped up next to your head. And don’t get us started on the state of airline food.

So what happened? How did we go from first-class glam for everyone to the often less-than-spectacular cabins inside planes today?

In order to see the progression, we have to go back all the way to January 1914, and the launch of the first commercial airline: the Benoist Aircraft Company. The company began with just one plane, with room enough for only the pilot and one passenger. The ticket for the first flight — a 23-minute jaunt between St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida — was sold at auction to Abram C. Pheil, the former mayor of St. Petersburg, for $400, or about $8,500 in today’s dollars.

Following the inaugural flight, the airline operated six days a week, running two flights per day. A second plane was added. The airline’s flights, which cost about $100 in today’s dollars, were sold out four months in advance. Business dropped when those escaping the cold in Florida headed back north for the summer. The last flight took off on 27 April 1914, closing operations on an airline that flew 1,205 passengers total through its lifetime.

The passenger section of a BEA Vickers in 1960. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
The passenger section of a BEA Vickers in 1960. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Britain took note of this accomplishment, and in 1919, a company called Air Transport & Travel (AT&T) made its inaugural flight using a WWI plane, travelling from London to Paris with a single passenger. AT&T’s plane had passengers just outside of the open cockpit, walled off in a cramped section of the fuselage that could fit two people.

Other companies eventually began to convert World War I planes into passenger planes as well, with one of the largest holding 14 passengers in an ornately decorated room with wicker chairs for the travellers to lounge in. By the 1930s, passengers enjoyed a single spacious cabin for up to 38 travellers, complete with wall-to-wall carpet, in-plane toilets, flight attendants, and seven-course meals. Tickets were prohibitively expensive, costing about 5% of a passenger’s annual salary, and sometimes exceeding it completely.

During World War II, planes were substantially improved. Now they could fly higher, hold heavier cargo, and fly faster than ever before. Former military aircraft were retrofitted after the war to hold passengers — and in order to be profitable, they needed to pack in as many passengers as possible. Cue the introduction of flight classes.

The first class compartment of a commercial passenger plane in the 1950s. (Photo by Authenticated News/Getty Images)
The first-class compartment of a commercial passenger plane in the 1950s. (Photo by Authenticated News/Getty Images)

Coach class was the first to emerge. Airlines weren’t yet allowed to charge multiple fare levels on one flight, thanks to rules in the 1940s from the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) that standardized fares on each flight. So instead, airlines split the routes. Shorter, less convenient routes cost less, and longer nonstop routes cost more. And lower prices meant a lower standard of service. Eventually, the cheaper priced shorter flights were dubbed “coach” — either referring to stagecoach rides with a lot of stops, or the coach car on trains that didn’t offer any amenities.

In 1952, airline groups (the CAB domestically and International Air Transport Association abroad) began allowing multi-fare flights, combining a standard class and the coach class with lower service. Coach class was still pretty lavish by today’s standards, especially since the same seats were used for every class until 1955, when the first multi-cabin configuration was introduced

And that was the beginning of first class. TWA introduced two separate cabins in 1955, and the standard class cabin continued to get more luxurious and expensive, with roomy seats, dressing rooms, full beds, and excessive amounts of food.

The 50s to the 70s saw the introduction of safer planes and room for even more passengers, but also higher operating costs thanks to increasing oil prices. Cabins were separated into even more fare classes and seats were even more packed in to make up for the deficit. Coach class (now known as economy) continued to see lower prices and less service. First class was demoted, as well — now, instead of hotel-esque pampering, passengers were switched to upright seats in reduced cabin sizes, though they still enjoyed a higher level of service and better food. And that trend has continued through today: decreasing space, reduced amenities, and increasing fares thanks to higher operating costs.

Plane sizes continued to increase from the 70s forward, which meant airlines could increase service offerings for each class — or even new classes altogether. Pan Am introduced an upper deck lounge for first class passengers, and other airlines used the extra space to introduce what would become business class: British Airways’ club class in 1978 and Qantas’ business class in 1979.

Read more: 50 years of the Boeing 747 in 11 photos

Business class didn’t start as the incredibly posh space it is now. It was first used for business people — frequent flyers who travelled for work. Their companies didn’t want to pay for luxe first class, but they flew so often that cramped economy wasn’t the right choice either. First class saw the introduction of sleeper seats, while business class got nice recliners, and economy stayed the same.

In the 90s, some airlines (like Delta and Continental) began to merge business and first class seats in order to make the expensive offerings even more appealing to passengers. This meant the introduction of yet another class — premium economy — that midrange passengers could use, sandwiched between economy and business.

In the early 2000s, business class officially surpassed first class. British Airways started it by launching the first fully lie-flat bed. American, Northwest, Continental, Delta, and United didn’t want to be outdone, so they followed suit. The race to claim those wealthy customers led to even more improvements, like suites with privacy, sliding doors, larger in-seat entertainment systems, and now even entire apartments with en-suite bathrooms and showers inside planes.

Read more: What flying was like 20 years ago

Aeroplane cabins are continually changing, whether it’s by adding even more luxury items like actual beds, or by increasing ultra-luxe offerings and pushing other classes out of the way. First class is already on the way out at several airlines. Hey, maybe posh business class seats will edge out everything, and we’ll finally enter into a new golden age of air travel.

Featured photo of first class passengers in a BOAC Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet Fox Photos/Getty Images.

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