Airlines have never been known as bastions of democracy. In fact, some management experts view them as a type of theocracy – where Godlike power is wielded, and mortal men are left to fend for themselves.

Air travel was originally created for the very wealthy; like fine ships, the seats were spacious and comfortable and the food, if not especially tasty, was at least plentiful.

As wide-body aircraft came into existence airlines had to begin marketing to the masses, and thus was born what we know today as economy class – more commonly called cattle class.

Those fortunate few, who through family fortunes, capricious government officials or names that end in Rothschild, eschewed the masses and kept to themselves in first class, and continue to be pampered in the manner to which they have grown accustomed.

A third group emerged quite quickly, those hardworking men and woman plying the skies, opening up new frontiers – all in the name of business. Business class was created to accommodate them; drinks were imbibed vociferously and this exclusive club was feted with airport lounges and the ability to exchange their frequent flier miles for this well-earned reward.

As business class fares rocketed upward companies began changing their policy, with more and more executives not being permitted to fly business class. The airlines weren’t that worried, as there was a large pool of potential clients who would pay three to four times the price of an economy ticket to enjoy the pleasures of business class.

Let’s face it, though. For most of us, business class is out of our reach, and even on those Transatlantic routes to North America or Asia, it is difficult to sleep – because there is simply no legroom. Airlines have realized this in recent years, and have started to install a hybrid class; noting that the middle class will pay a little more for comfort and service.

You know what first class is, can comprehend what business class is and have personally experienced the “joys” of economy class. This recent addition to the airplane vocabulary is far more difficult to categorize. I prefer “Economy Plus,” but each airline has chosen to market it with their own jargon.

Initially designed for greater seat comfort, this economy plus proves appealing to companies and businessmen who want to cut costs in comparison to business class, also rapidly becoming popular with leisure travelers.

Today, it has become a dazzling class on most longterm flights to North America and Asia, and the price continues to rise.

The problem becomes that these economy plus classes share few common standards, with a huge differential in the range of services between the various airlines. While there are no flat beds in any of the economy plus cabins, in all of them you can certainly sit more comfortably, stretch your legs and enjoy your meals without someone’s tray in your face.

Some airlines chose to focus on their quality of service and flight experience (better food, lounge access, more exclusivity), and some focus on more functional aspects, with wider space between rows of seats. (This distance between two rows of seats is called seat pitch, and needless to say, more is better.) The effect, both financially and in terms of airlines prestige, has become quite evident – with some electing to have all passengers pay for these seats, and others offering them for free to their top-tier frequent fliers.

El Al, United Airlines and Delta are three airlines which market their economy plus seats to paying passengers, and give them out for free to their top-tier frequent fliers.

Turkish Airlines, British Airways and Air Canada elected to create a separate cabin, with separate check-in lines at airports, which all passengers must purchase if they wish to enjoy the benefit.

It was only two years ago that El Al joined this middle class trend with its own economy plus department, operating it on their wide-body aircraft to North America, Asia and some cities in Europe. If you consider that British Airways pioneered this over 14 years ago – physically separating passengers from the riff raff in economy class, offering preferential service as well as a different menu – the decision by El Al to finally join the chorus was not born by chance.

El Al operates their economy plus seats only on their Boeing 747 and 767 planes, but has hinted that the class will soon be adopted by their 777s. Statistics confirm that these sections are almost always full, which is not surprising – as so many eligible frequent fliers receive them for free.

Another example of the popularity of these seats can be seen in Delta’s decision to replace the aircraft operating on the JFK-Tel Aviv route from a 747 with 376 seats, to a smaller 777 with only 291 seats. While there will be less economy class seats on the plane, there are no plans to limit the amount of economy plus seats, thus raising the odds that if you want to sit with a traveling companion, you may need to pay for a seat in the economy plus section.

THE REALITY is that as we have more disposable income and realize the huge difference it physically makes on our bodies, the middle class is voting in large numbers and seating themselves in economy plus.

Those airlines that make it easy to purchase or earn these seats have benefited greatly; those that make you jump through hoops and navigate unfriendly sites continue to see their market share drop.

Pay close attention to the battle on the route to Toronto next month. Air Canada will be selling seats on its Dreamliner in its economy plus cabin, while El Al will be trying to encourage their top-tier frequent fliers to enjoy them for free, if they elect to fly on El Al’s antiquated 767.

Let the games begin.

Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments: mark.feldman@ziontours.co.il

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