The Evolution Of Economy Class

Economy class – as the lowest cost way to travel – has seen many changes since it really came about in the 1950s. Unlike first and business class, which continue to see improvements and new offerings, economy class, in general, has declined. Cabins, of course, are more modern but airlines have been in a race to pack them ever more full. This article takes a short look at the history of economy travel and how we got to what we have today.

The Evolution Of Economy Class
A modern economy cabin with British Airways – economy class has not always been like this. Photo: British Airways

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In the beginning, it was all economy class – or first class?

In the early days of aviation, there was no differentiation between seating classes. Airlines offered one cabin, and one style of service to all passengers. Of course, on the earliest aircraft, this would have been very basic, as passenger service grew alongside freight and mail. But it soon improved as passenger service became more common in the 1920s.

Getty Transcontinental Air Transport flight
The cabin of a Transcontinental Air Transport flight, 1929. One class, but far from economy. Photo: Getty Images

Aircraft such as the Empire Flying Boat were the first to offer true long haul aviation. These generally came with one class of service, and it was very luxurious. Beds, tables, and lounges brought luxury that makes today’s first class look basic! Flying in these days was extremely expensive, and anyone who could afford a ticket received first class treatment.

Qanats flying boat
The cabin of the Empire Flying Boat. Photo: Qantas

Growth in aviation, but still one class of service

The introduction of aircraft such as the DC3 in 1936 brought major changes to aviation. Pressurized cabins could carry more passengers faster, further and in more comfort. Prices lowered and more people could travel. But cabins remained one class – not termed first or economy – but certainly nothing like today’s economy class.

Getty Interior of DC3 1938
Single cabin interior of a Douglas DC3, 1938. They were also configured with one cabin 2-1 configuration seating. Photo: Getty Images

The start of class differentiation

The concept of economy class began in the 1940s with the expansion in aviation after the Second World War. US airlines began to offer lower fares for a ‘coach class’ service. Often these were offered on separate services, perhaps making more stops and carrying freight or mail as well.

United was one of the first airlines to try this concept. It offered a two-stop flight between Los Angeles and San Francisco for US$13.90 as opposed to $18.95 on the nonstop service. Pan Am started this in 1948 on international flights to San Juan and Rio.

Getty Pan Am main cabin 1958
Pan Am main cabin on a transcontinental flight, 1958. Photo: Getty Images

Airlines and fares were strongly regulated, and it was not until 1952 that IATA introduced a two-class fare structure. London to New York would cost $395 in standard class and $270 in lower standard tourist or coach class.

It was not until 1955 however when the first real two-cabin service, with separate seating, was offered. TWA introduced this on its Super Constellation aircraft – and this is likely the first real appearance of the economy and first class concept (with different fares, seats, and service) that we consider standard today.

Getty Super Constellation
The interior of the Super Constellation allowed for two separate cabins (this is a preserved example in France). Photo: Getty Images

Despite these introductions, economy class in these years was not as popular as you might imagine. Amazingly, it was not until 1961 that the number of passenger miles (in the US) flown in economy class exceeded that of first class.

Growth in aviation – and economy class from the 1960s onwards

With the format of economy and first class now set, the next decades saw this expand. New aircraft such as the Boeing 707 and DC8 offered separate economy and first class cabins. The lounges, beds and other amenities seen in first class began to disappear and airlines instead focussed on fitting more seats in both cabins.

American Airlines Boeing 707
The Boeing 707 revolutionized travel in many ways, including the growth of economy travel. Photo: Bill Larkins via Wikimedia

Things took a major step forward with the introduction of the Boeing 747 in 1969. This gave airlines much more space to develop their cabins. Around the same time, regulation of airfares ended in the US. This gave airlines much more freedom to define new fare types and options.

Introducing business class as an enhancement to economy

With the expansion in aviation and reduction in fares, throughout the 1970s economy cabins became larger and fuller. The next major change to the economy cabin came when airlines began offering enhanced service within the cabin, giving regular passengers, frequent fliers, or just those who chose to pay for it, enhanced services and a quieter environment.

Getty Pan Am 747 economy
Economy on a Pan Am Boeing 747 in the 1970s. Photo: Getty Images

There were many versions of this launched by airlines – but these were initially all based on an enhanced service with the same economy seating. For example, British Airways offered  ‘Club Class’ from 1979, Pan Am introduced ‘Clipper Class’ in 1978 and Japan Airlines launched ‘Orange Blossom’ service as early as 1975.

By the end of the 1970s this evolved into a new third cabin of service – today’s ‘Business Class.’ Qantas was the first airline to introduce this, with other airlines such as British Airways, Pan Am and TWA all following in the early 1980s.

British Airways Super Club
British Airways Super Club, introduced in 1981, was an evolution of economy. Photo: British Airways

Premium economy makes economy even more basic

The creation of the business cabin out of economy set the standard of three cabins. But this would happen again in the 1990s with Premium Economy. The same pattern of carving out the upper end of economy into a new cabin class began again.

EVA Air was the first airline to introduce an enhanced economy cabin on its 747 in 1991, named the ‘Evergreen Class.’ Virgin Atlantic and British Airways followed soon after. American carriers were slow to introduce a separate premium economy cabin, instead choosing to make small modifications to their economy service (similar to how business class evolved earlier).

American Airlines, for example, introduced the Main Cabin Extra concept (for an extra charge or free for some frequent fliers) and did not introduce a separate premium cabin until 2016.

Virgin A350 Premium Economy
Virgin was one of the earliest airlines to introduce a separate premium economy cabin, seen here much later in the new A350. Photo: Jo Bailey/Simple Flying

Some airlines continue to operate the split economy cabin idea rather than introduce a separate cabin. This generally comes at a lower cost but is also (in terms of airfares and mileage awards) still an economy seat.

finnair premium economy
Finnair is one airline that continues to operate just economy (with paid enhanced seating), although they will start to offer premium economy later in 2020. Photo: Finnair

Declining standards

Unfortunately for passengers, this introduction of new cabins, and ‘enhanced’ economy seats, over the past four decades has done little to improve the standard of economy class. Seats have become smaller, legroom has been reduced, and more and more of the services that used to be standard are now chargeable extras. Many airlines have defined an even lower-priced economy ticket – economy class without any of the extras such as hold baggage or the ability to choose seats.

British Airways, for example, are refitting many Boeing 777s with ten abreast seating in economy (3-4-3 configuration as opposed to the former 3-3-3). It is also offering lower hand baggage only fares on regional as well as long haul routes.

The Evolution Of Economy Class
British Airways is swapping its 3-3-3 configuration to 3-4-3 in economy. Photo: IAG

With this though fares have changed too and flying is of course much more accessible than in those early days of the 707 and 747. But with airlines today squeezing in more and more seats, is it really all that better? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.