Tobold's Blog
Friday, September 15, 2017
The return of third class travel

When railway travel was new in the 19th century, carriages came in three claases, 1st for the rich, 2nd for the middle class, and 3rd for the working class. That sort of class system went out of fashion in the 1950's, and since then most railways only have 2 classes. So do many airplanes, having business and economy as choices, with "1st class" only available on a few long-haul flights.

I am currently sitting in a train, 1st class carriage, from Brussels to Paris. And I'm reading an announcement that from December on this high-speed railway will have economy, comfort, and prestige instead of 1st and 2nd class. Which of course means that if you travel economy, you are effectively travelling in 3rd class, there being two better options on offer. That isn't an outlier, airlines have started to introduce "economy plus" between economy and business, also turning economy into 3rd class. We aren't quite back to wooden benches yet, but everybody knows how comfort has diminished in economy class over the last decade. Frequent travellers have many a horror story to tell.

Somehow I feel there is a vicious circle involved here. As the name "business" suggests, the target customer for a business seat is a traveller whose ticket has been bought by his company. But many companies have become less generous over the years, forcing their employees to travel economy, at least on shorter voyages. So the idea of railroads and airlines is to get companies to at least pay for an intermediate option. But of course the response of companies is going to be to never pay for business class again, the economy plus option being deemed sufficient.

Of course a 3 class system is also a symptom of a less egalitarian, more unequal society. And as a student of history and economy I know that unequal societies have a strong tendency to go horribly wrong. So 3rd class isn't something I think is a good idea.

Tobold are you against all market segmentation by income or is it the specific negative connotations of "third class" that you object to?

Market segmentation by income may be a bit demeaning for those in economy class but it does give enormous benefits to those with lower incomes who could not otherwise afford to travel at all. You and I both are old enough to remember when the cheapest flight between London and Paris cost more than a weeks wage. From a purely economic point of view market segmentation has lots of benefits and the more bands the better so that everyone can travel at their chosen level of comfort and price.

However I can understand the particular difficulty with going back to the old class system. A person's class wasn't just an economic preference it was a form of apartheid. A working class passenger wouldn't be welcome in first class even if they could afford it. I strongly reject any return to that world.

Do you think there is really a danger that we could slip back into that old form of apartheid? I had a very brief look at the advertising for some first class airline travel and some budget airline travel. The budget travel advertising is all about price and how cheap it is. The first class travel ads I could find are all about the luxury features you will enjoy. I was looking for specific suggestions that "you are a better class of person if you travel first class" but I didn't find that message explicitly stated. Perhaps it is implied however.

@mbp: of course it's implied. Otherwise it wouldn't retain the old "class" marketing line. They would just call them what they are:
- luxury cart
- normal cart
- crowded cheap cart

Look at any car ad, it sells the illusion of elegance, not transportation.
Separation in transport never went away, but it is more commonly done by brand as opposed to same-transport segregation.
The key is to ensure that all markets are catered and that budget customers are not treated disparagingly. Modern businesses should see 3rd class as a useful and valued component of their offering with budget services provided for the passenger. Steerage class inverted that, taking cargo space with minimal earnings potential and turning passengers as cargo to get it used.
I would say there are 4 classes. The 3 you mentioned and then the people that can't even afford the economy class and therefore don't travel via planes, or trains.
oh man, I am completely the opposite, as long as transport is moderately clean, I will pick the cheaper option, not because of budget concerns, but because I am not interested in luxury transport. As long as there is room to open a book, nothing else registers.
I don't disagree. However, I would remind you that this is transportation where the airlines are masters at segmentation, i.e. minimizing what economists call the "consumer surplus." Airlines in the US are "common carriers" required by law to charge everyone the same price grown out of a century ago worry about the power of railroads. I saw a documentary where the people on one plane flight paid over twenty different prices due to different fares.

So a question is whether a book anytime, fully refundable flight is more "luxurious" than a book two months in advance, non refundable or non changeable flight?

My typical airline is Delta and they offer. although not on the same plane, six levels of service: Delta One, Delta Premium Select, First Class, Delta Comfort+, Main Cabin,
Basic Economy. There are well over two dozen fare codes (prices) including a dozen Main Cabin fares (main Cabin Y, main cabin Q ...) A Mon-Wed flight tends to be more expensive than a Fri-Sun flight. Basic Economy class is cheaper than main cabin and they sit in the same seats with the same "food"/drink/entertainment options. It's just they can't pre-reserve seats or modify flights.

Post 1992, as cheap airlines (e.g. Ryan, EasyJet ) start to have the same impact on European trains that airlines did on American trains earlier, I bet that there are/will be far more than three different fares on the train, further segmenting the customers.

I'm with Caldazar - so long as I have a seat to sit in and preferably a window to look out, other luxuries are a hard sell.
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