I HAVE been on a drive lately to encourage business travelers to get out of the back of the plane and move up to the better seats on long flights, even if it costs a little more.
This does not make me a popular fellow with corporate managers who set travel spending policies with a sharp and merciless eye. On the other hand, it does improve my standing (if not my seating) with the airlines, which have been aggressively promoting premium economy seats, which cost more for the extra legroom and better service.
Many business travelers fly under so-called managed travel programs that dictate which airline must be flown (companies often negotiate volume air travel discounts with specific carriers), and which fares must be booked. Usually, that means flying the cheapest available coach fare.
But not all business travelers are created equal, as noted in a report in February by the travel market research firm PhoCusWright. Among companies with formal managed-travel policies, “just under one-fourth (24 percent) of upper management and only 9 percent of executive leadership are required to comply” with the policy, the report said.
There are ways around strict travel policies. In last week’s column, a frequent business traveler named Bill Catlette described his birthday present to himself in January: no more flying coach. He said he hasn’t been in a coach seat all year.
I thought I’d return to Mr. Catlette this week for elaboration on his coach rebellion, and for some tips on how to push for more comfort.
The impetus for Mr. Catlette’s birthday vow to avoid coach seats is simple enough. “It’s bad and it’s getting worse,” he said. Airlines, he said, “are continuing, for the most part, to push the envelope, shrinking both seat pitch and width.” Mr. Catlette and his business partner, Richard Hadden, run a leadership and training consulting company called Contented Cow Partners.
The two men have a new book with a mouthful of a title: “Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk, Revised and Expanded: The Plain Truth About Employee Engagement and Your Bottom Line” (John Wiley & Sons). The message is simple.
“The deal in the workplace has been changing radically for seven to eight years,” Mr. Catlette said. “People are no longer loyal to the organization. It’s become a lot more personal, and part of that change is that people are negotiating more with their employers on an individual basis.”
Mr. Catlette explained what that has to do with persuading a travel manager that you should be able to buy a better airplane seat, even if it’s just premium coach: “I think people, particularly those who feel that they’re stronger performers, shouldn’t be bashful about negotiating for that stuff. Don’t get carried away and ask for first class on an international flight. But, yeah, ask for business class. Ask for premium coach. Make the point that, look, if I’m jammed back in seat 32E, I’m not going to be working on your stuff, and given the opportunity to work, I’d rather be working. And if it’s a couple of hundred bucks more to give me hours of concentrated work time on a flight, that makes sense.”
Most good managers listen carefully to travelers’ suggestions, Mr. Catlette said. On the other hand, he added, “I run into enough travel managers who think they’re paying out of their own pocket” and pinch pennies even when spending a little more makes sense.
And incidentally, if you’re looking to move forward in the plane this summer on flights to Europe, bargains are popping up. British Airways, for example, has a sale ending Tuesday for round-trip business class between most of its departure cities in the United States and London, with fares starting at $2,012, including taxes and fees. In some cases, that’s cheaper than regular coach fares. Virgin Atlantic has also sharply discounted its premium-cabin fares to London this summer, and some domestic carriers are promoting business-class sales to Europe.
As I suggested last week, many airlines have been emphasizing the better seats while making things less comfortable in basic coach. In May, for example, American Airlines flew a group of airline reporters and bloggers to Dallas to show off its renovated premium seating, including the luxurious business-class cabins on American’s new wide body Boeing 777-300ERs that will begin flying internationally late this year, starting with flights between Dallas and São Paulo, Brazil, in December, and Dallas and London in January.
But largely unmentioned in the media gushing was that, while long-haul cabins are more splendid than ever, basic coach seating is becoming more cramped. American’s 777-300ERs will have coach seats that are arranged in rows 10 across, compared with the nine-across rows that Cathay-Pacific, for example, flies on its own 777-300ERs.
Some travelers I hear from say they’re avoiding air travel. They’re fed up with coach seats, and the dearth of free upgrades that used to be common for elite-status fliers till airlines realized they could make more money selling those seats outright.
“How long do they think passengers will continue to put up with terrible conditions in the planes?” one frequent flier, Emilio F. Bandiero, told me. “I’ve taken to driving whenever I can. I’d rather drive 1,000 miles in the comfort of my car than sit in one of the shrink-wrap seats they now have.”