Who Gets to Sit in First Class Airline Seats?

This was a question exercising Richard Wolff, a self-styled Marxist economics professor, in a recent talk on Alternative Radio. Its programs monotonously demonize capitalism or U.S. “imperialism.” Wolff’s talk was in the former category, mocking the idea that the market is some perfect mechanism for producing ideal economic outcomes (an idea nobody actually holds).

UnknownHis airline seat conniptions were prompted by being flown First Class to some speaking gig. He liked it – in contrast to flying “steerage,” and as a card-carrying leftist was rankled by the inequality.*

What we have here, Wolff said, is a “distributional problem.” And he held forth at some length with alternative, putatively fairer ways to (re)distribute First Class seats. Anything but just selling them, to people willing to pay.

manna-from-heavenThis “distributional” fixation shows the fundamental mistake of lefty economics. Wolff sees First Class seats – and, by extension, any other good or asset – as just out there, as though created by some sort of spontaneous generation, like manna falling from the sky, the only question being how to divvy them up (with everyone, presumptively, having equal entitlements).**

Wolff recognized that if First Class seats are conferred by one of his egalitarian methods, rather than sold, airlines would make less profit. But, he said, “who cares?”

images-2This too shows the magical thinking of leftist economics. As though profit is somehow ill-gotten, illegitimate, exploitative, and all goods and services ought instead to be forthcoming, somehow, free of profit. Magically.

Now here’s reality. If airlines couldn’t profit, they wouldn’t fly. You wouldn’t have seats, First Class or Sardine class. And all the people who work for airlines wouldn’t have jobs.***images-3

Maybe you think air travel, and all other goods and services, should be provided by government, for public benefit, with no dirty profit. Some countries actually do have government-run airlines. They tend to be mismanaged white elephants that suck money from taxpayers and out of public budgets, subsidizing air travelers at the expense of everyone else.

First Class seats, that Wolff calls a “distributional problem,” are not in fact some good that’s out there waiting for an economics professor to allocate. They would not exist if they weren’t profit centers. And, while it’s true that to fetch high prices UnknownFirst Class seats have to be cushy, the takers are less beneficiaries than they are victims, albeit voluntary victims; sheep being sheared. Because in relation to “steerage,” and the amenities First Class seats entail, they are stupendously overpriced (that nice glass of wine effectively costs you hundreds). It’s really an extortion racket: pay up or suffer the indignity of mixing with the peasants.

In fact airlines get the bulk of their profits from First Class. Without that, regular seats would have to cost much more, probably pricing out most travelers, who wouldn’t fly at all, making the whole enterprise unviable. images-1First Class travelers subsidize the rest, so air travel is affordable to ordinary folks, and planes get filled, airlines can operate and make a little profit, and everyone is better off.

That, Mister Marxist Professor Wolff, is market economics, and it’s a damn good thing.

By the way, when I said “a little profit,” I wasn’t being cute. In fact, the airline industry, over its entire history, has made very little profit at all, in relation to the vast amount of investment. Unknown-4Competition has seen to that. So the public has received the colossal benefit of trillions of miles of transportation, provided essentially at cost. The meager profit garnered by airlines is surely a small price to pay for what we gain.

That again is market economics. A damn good thing.

* Though, as my wife noted, he didn’t refuse the seat, switch with some more deserving traveler, or fly economy and donate the difference to the poor.

** I’ve written about John Rawls’s famous book, A Theory of Justice, similarly treating wealth as just something out there, to be distributed, with nary a word about its creation.

*** On one flight I was treated to an ad wherein the airline’s head extolled all the numerous employees who made the flight possible, many unseen by passengers. I was indeed struck by the vast complexity of the enterprise, and how oblivious most of us are to all the cooperative efforts of the legions of people who make our civilization work.

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4 Responses to “Who Gets to Sit in First Class Airline Seats?”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    First class need not be eliminated nor extended to all. However the downward quality of coach flying can be stopped and free market capitalism can continue on price and quality. I don’t fly much but air fares have become too opaque and hard to decipher.

    We the people, as the federal government, can regulate seat standards – size, space dimensions, etc, – for the safety and comfort of the passengers under the commerce clause of the US Constitution.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    Always running to Mommy Government to address every issue and grievance. Lookit: plane seats would be more commodious if there were fewer of them packed into the cabin. Of course, with fewer passengers per plane, each would have to pay more. Is the general public willing to pay? Apparently not, because airlines (which are not stupid) have judged that most travelers value cheap price over comfort, so they keep fares as low as possible by packing as many people as possible into each plane. If they could attract more customers (and profit) by offering greater comfort at higher prices, they would. This is a competitive business and there is no reason why the market cannot sort this out in the most economically efficient way. Introducing government into the picture can only introduce distortions and inefficiencies.
    In fact, the Civil Aeronautics Board used to comprehensively regulate every aspect of air travel. In the ’70s, Alfred Kahn became chairman, and said, “Why are we doing this?” He abolished the whole regulatory scheme. Until then, government-regulated air travel had been expensive and pretty much limited to the affluent. The deregulation brought about a revolution, with airlines freed to tailor their services to the market, resulting in much cheaper prices and a vast expansion in ridership, with air travel now something the masses can do.
    You want to turn the clock back?

  3. Ninasusan Says:

    I agree!

  4. bruce Says:

    I always shop for the cheap flight, then wonder if I could get first class when I’m boarding. (many a slip between the lip and the cup,) works no matter how brutishly you botch the quote or interpret it.

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