Is this how to make economy class "nicer"?

Breeze Airways wants to fix the airline class system. Good luck with that.

Nothing divides air travelers quite like the class system. The curtain between economy and business class isn't just a partition between "haves" and "have-nots." It also separates us ideologically — and ergonomically.

So when someone promises to bridge these differences, you might want to pay attention. And when that someone is David Neeleman, who invented JetBlue's famously egalitarian one-class cabins and who offered to "bring humanity back to air travel," well, then you have my attention.

And that's how I found myself at an event I wouldn't otherwise be caught dead at: the unveiling of Breeze Airways' new A220-300 aircraft in Mobile, Ala., last week. Breeze is Neeleman's latest airline venture, which aspires to serve chronically underserved markets in the United States with affordable nonstop flights. But it also allowed him to show off Breeze's new premium seat, which will debut next year.

Yeah, I know. The guy who brought humanity back to air travel is now giving us first class?

Come on.

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Wait, can the class system be "nice"?

"What do you want Breeze to be known for?" I asked Neeleman in my latest Forbes interview.

"Niceness," he said 

Neeleman isn't just riffing off one of his favorite themes with Breeze by claiming his airline will be nicer than the others. He's ridiculing his competitors, who he suggests are not so nice by treating their customers poorly, giving them inconvenient connections, making them uncomfortable and overcharging them. 

But proof of niceness is found in the back of the plane. Domestic coach class is spectacularly awful, and in a way that feels deliberate. Airlines seem to be doing everything they can to make the experience as miserable as possible, with small seats that minimize your personal space. I just flew on one of those airlines from Dallas to Los Angeles, and the passenger in front of me leaned back after takeoff, leaving me with no place for my legs. 

Can an airline offer a premium cabin and still be nice to coach passengers? If you fly up front on one of the legacy carriers, you already know the answer. But for the rest of us — no, it can't.

Breeze says you can currently book two bundled fare types — ‘Nice’ or ‘Nicer.’ The ‘Nicer’ fare includes items such as a free carry-on and checked bag and an extra legroom seat at the time of booking. (Umm, it's not free if you're paying for it.) 

And Breeze also wants you to know that when you book a flight on the A220-300, you'll have a third fare option: the ‘Nicest’ fare. It'll feature a bigger seat in the front of the cabin: 20.5 inches wide, with a 39-inch pitch and special features such as a footrest "for added comfort." 

What do you think of the current class system?

Before we go on, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Is the current class system on planes fair to passengers? Is it morally right to have such a disparity between comfort, amenities and service? Or is this the perfect expression of the free market? Should the people in the back just shut up and be grateful that they have an opportunity to fly?

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How about the back of the plane?

On Breeze's other plane, the Embraer 195, they spaced the seats 31 inches apart. That's about standard for the airline industry in 2021, give or take an inch or two. An Airbus official told me I couldn't sit in any of the seats to get a feel of the seat comfort because, technically, the aircraft hadn't been delivered to Breeze yet. But I guess these guys didn't get the memo.

I did, however, visually inspect the new ‘Nice’ economy seats. And from the looks of it, they are a little cozy. As a 6-foot-1 guy, I would probably spend the extra money for a ‘Nicest’ ticket. 

You got me, Dave.

How is that any different from the game the legacy carriers are playing with us now? You know, give us your unquestioning loyalty, sign up for our credit card, pay more money and maybe — just maybe — we won't torture you on your next flight. 

I don't know.

The class system wasn't great to begin with, but …

Look, the class system has always left something to be desired. The idea of treating some of your passengers better than others seems a little un-American to me. But before deregulation, air carriers had a line they wouldn't cross — a minimum amount of legroom and service. The idea of selling you food or space in an overhead bin would have been laughable.

In the early 2000s, U.S. airlines realized they could turn the class system into a powerful motivator. They began to remove amenities once considered vital to the air travel experience, like the ability to check a bag, reserve a seat, or even just to be comfortable, and they parceled these privileges out to a chosen few who carried the right cards. And they shamelessly monetized all the things that used to come included with an economy class ticket, like seat assignments, food, drinks and luggage.

Neeleman's JetBlue resisted all that. He criticized the trend as dehumanizing, and he was right. And he bet that people would be willing to spend a little more for a better experience, and he was right about that, too. JetBlue took off.

But the JetBlue of today is a different airline. It recently introduced a new business class cabin called Mint. And its fares are as segmented and class-conscious as Nice, Nicer and Nicest. Its standard seat pitch in economy class is about 32 inches, although that isn't the only indicator of comfort, and slimline seats can offer more space even with tighter pitches.

Still, as a longtime JetBlue customer, I can confirm that the airline has changed — and specifically, that it has moved closer to the legacy carriers and away from its egalitarian roots.

The real question is: Can Breeze have a class system that's nicer than all the others, including JetBlue? Can it make the class system great again, which we would put at circa 1978? I mean, I remember being able to cross my legs in economy class on Eastern, TWA, and even Braniff.

I think there's only one way to do this right. You have to remember where the line is and never, ever cross it.

On a new plane like the A220-300, I can't tell where the line is yet. Maybe 31 inches of seat pitch is more than enough. But there are other lines that you can't go below. Charging passengers for carry-on bags, for example. Fees for seat reservations, which force families with young children to shell out hundreds of extra dollars just so they can keep an eye on their offspring. 

We should watch Breeze closely to see how it navigates the economics of the airline industry, which rewards airlines that base their entire business model on fees and frothy loyalty programs and discourages them from actually taking care of their passengers. It is a cruel reality that only one person can bend to his will. And that person is David Neeleman.

OK, the comments are open. I'd love to know what you think of Breeze or its new Nicest seats. Have you flown Breeze yet? Do you think it can make the class system better, or will it eventually become another JetBlue or even a legacy airline?

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About the art

For inspiration, artist Dustin Elliott looked to Monty Python's comedic hand of God. "In this work, I sought to convey an idea that a powerful invisible hand that no one can control, is our permanent companion as we embark on flights," he says. "Always there to push us and squish us into ever-smaller spaces to make space for more profits."