Some Airlines Are Paring Down Economy Sections for More First Class Seating

Air travel is officially back in a big way. But if skyrocketing ticket prices weren't already an indication of the trend, major carriers are now growing their first class sections to meet consumer demand.

The New York Times reports that major U.S. airlines are now expanding premium seating by 25 to 75 percent in portions of their fleets. And this is even considering that flights in general are already outpacing inflation by as much as 25 percent.

But why are people willing to pay more for premium seating on top of inflated prices?

Well, the pandemic is partially responsible for that, as well. Fliers have less tolerance for cramped airline seating and are looking for more space between them and their fellow passengers, particularly in the wake of an airborne virus bringing the world to a standstill. And not only that, but those who abstained from traveling during lockdown may feel more comfortable splurging on flight upgrades.

Another factor is that airlines were offering deals on premium seating during the pandemic, when people weren't traveling nearly as much for business. Now, those who snatched up those deals have become accustomed to the high life, so to speak, and are simply willing to pay more for premium seating. A recent J.D. Power survey found that customer satisfaction amongst first class passengers has been climbing, while economy customers have seen a diminished experience.

Delta, in particular, is offering 15,000 more premium economy or business class seats per day than the company did before the pandemic. As an example, 20 economy and six business class seats were removed from Delta’s 767-400 planes to make room for a 20-seat premium economy cabin.

There's even the case of boutique airline La Compagnie, which eschews economy passengers altogether and operates business-class-only flights between Newark, NJ and European destinations like Paris and Milan.

However, while adding premium seating is a way for airlines to increase revenue, it also involves expensive cabin retrofits and taking planes out of rotation to have the work done. And because this process could take several years, it's also a bit of a gamble on the airlines part. It's always possible the trend could soon swing the other way.

For the time being, at least, expanded premium seating seems here to stay. But it's not cheap. According to sample round-trip prices from the three major airlines, booking a flight from New York to Los Angeles in early May for the first week of June started at around $300 for economy, $900 for premium economy, and $1,200 for business.

But thrifty travelers fear not—budget airlines are still trying to attract consumers, sometimes offering bottom-dollar deals to fill seats.