Why First Class Isn’t Worth It

The airplane tickets that we printed at the self-serve kiosk said “Seat assignments cannot be given at this time. Please check in at the gate to receive seat assignments.

So I did. I approached the ticket counter and showed the attendant my tickets. She immediately picked up a stack of tickets that were on the counter waiting for us and handed them to me without saying a word. I glanced at the tickets to make sure they had our names on them. I’d hate for the plane to go down and for everyone to think we were the Chckzentmi family from Uzbekistan. If we go down, we go down as the Hensons from Columbus.

Yep, yep, yep, yep. All four names matched the names of my family. All was good, so I walked back to my wife – the holder of all important documents and chewing gum – and handed her the tickets. She obviously looked more thoroughly at the ticket because she poked me and said, “These are FIRST CLASS.” I hadn’t noticed that little detail.

Now I know I’m incredibly famous and all, but I fly coach. In fact, I choose seats in the very back of the airplane (see the note at the bottom of the article if you want to know why). I think I’ve only flown first class twice in my life, and those were times I was bumped off a flight due to overbooking. And my family has NEVER flown first class together.

The boys, trying to look first class
So, this should have been a big deal.

But it wasn’t.

Because the attendant didn’t make it a big deal.

And she should have.

Do you know the price difference between coach and first class for this flight? $526. PER PERSON. That’s $2104 for my family of four. And do you know what makes it worth more than $2k extra? 

Me, neither.

Let me run down the differences between my recent first class experience and my many, many coach experiences:
  1. We got to board before everyone else. Great. So every other passenger can bump me with their bag or their booty on their way through first class. I’m pretty sure some of them did it on purpose.
  2. Bigger seats & bigger armrests. For me, personally, this is the biggest benefit because I have a thing about airline armrest etiquette.
  3. The attendant brought us a pre-flight drink while we were waiting for takeoff. I’ll estimate that was about 17 cents total for the 8 drops of Diet Coke in those little plastic cups.
  4. The attendent brought us a cup of warm mixed nuts. Nice touch, but still a long way to go to reach a couple grand worth of extra value.
  5. A free cookie. I’ve eaten a lot of cookies in my life. This was no $500 cookie.
  6. Decent coffee in a ceramic mug instead of a styrofoam cup.
  7. A “special” magazine in the seat pocket in front of me targeted to people who make more money than Bill Gates.
  8. We got to get off the plane first…while the white hot hatred of everyone behind us burned holes in our backs because it took me an extra five seconds to get my bag unstuck from the overhead compartment.
The entire time on the flight, the attendant never really spoke to me, my wife, or my kids. Oh, she asked if we wanted the nuts and the cookie, and she did say the obligatory airline attendant “buh bye” as we exited the aircraft, but that was it. 

Let me tell you what I would do if I ran first class for an airline: I would make passengers feel like they are the most special people in the whole wide world.

From the minute I handed them their first class boarding pass until the minute they start trudging back up the jetway into the airport, I would do more than check off my drink/nuts/cookie checklist. I would SMILE at them. I would talk to them. I would ask them about their kids. I would compliment them on their awesome scarf. I would tell them about a great new app they should check out on their iPad. I would point out the VIP magazine. I would give them as many cookies as they want. I would massage their feet. I’m kidding, I would limit the cookies to 10. 

I would make them feel like they were a big deal. I would make them feel FIRST CLASS.

Here’s what I think has happened. First class has lost its lustre…to the flight attendants. They do the same thing on several flights a day, several days a week, every week of the year. It gets old. It gets normal. It doesn’t feel special anymore. And it shows.

Delivering first class service is like maintaining a first class marriage: you have to work at it to keep it that way. You can’t let it get old. You can’t let it get normal. You have to show up every day ready to give it 100%, and often more. You have to massage their feet.

Yes, we should be delivering the best service we can at all times. We all know that. But if you offer a first class upgrade, a VIP section, or a gold membership to any part of your business, you need to make sure it FEELS that way to your customer. And a first class experience doesn’t come from warm nuts and a cookie. It comes from a warm attitude and a connection.


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