Last Tuesday, on his way to Travel Weekly's Reader Choice Awards ceremony, Richard Anderson sat in seat 19F on a Delta flight from Atlanta to New York. Unlike many of his fellow passengers, he had a few other flight options: He could have taken advantage of the services of the private jet division his company owns or, as CEO of Delta Air Lines, he likely could have gotten a seat in first.
But whenever it's practically possible, Anderson, like the vast majority of his customers, flies in coach.
He cares, of course, about the service in business or first class, where both comfort levels and profit margins are higher, but Anderson also knows that it's critical to the airline's reputation to make sure that the coach experience is as good as it can be, particularly as load factors rise.
In 19F, he also gets to observe conditions for his employees who must serve many more passengers per flight than those catering to first-class customers.
And for the CEO to sit in coach sends a powerful symbolic message to his passengers: He cares about all of them.
In the spirit of enlightened self-interest, others in the industry might want to join Anderson in paying closer attention to the masses. While there do not appear to be any indications that the boom in luxury travel will slow in 2014, there are certain societal trends that on one hand support that boom but that also impact those in the back of the plane. And those trends signal that change is coming.
Among the more interesting pop hits of this past year were "Thrift Shop" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and "Royals" by Lorde. "Thrift Shop" both revels in the fun of buying secondhand styles and mocks the concept of paying for luxury brands ("$50 for a [Gucci] T-shirt? ... I call that being tricked by business"). "Royals" is an uplifting anthem for commoners that declares, with pride, indifference to symbols of wealth and status ("Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece, jet planes, islands ... we don't care, we aren't caught up in your love affair").
Both give expression to an undercurrent that is likely to gain momentum. The growing disparity in income and wealth, the amount of debt that graduating college seniors face, rising health care costs for retiring baby boomers, barriers that make economic advancement increasingly difficult -- looking to the future, these factors are reshaping not only conditions within society at large but individuals' ambitions and aspirations.
Much of the luxury boom in travel, particularly before the recession, was fueled by aspiration. It was acceptable for consumers to splurge on a luxury vacation and pay it off over time, but that required a certain confidence in their own economic security, a sense that is generally lacking today.
And there is a divide even among the wealthy. The focus on experience vs. brand has been growing and gaining speed. Consider these quotes that have appeared in Travel Weekly over the past 12 months: Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen may be a credo for the ages, but it's sure not for today.
-- Frits van Paasschen, CEO of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Do you really want to eat in another three-star Michelin restaurant? I don't. I don't really want to spend four hours and 1,500 euros on that. And I think there are a lot of people like me who have been fortunate enough to have experienced this but don't want to do it anymore.
-- Neil Jacobs, CEO of Six Senses They don't want four people standing around them, waiting to pick up their handkerchief should they drop it.
-- John Vanderslice, global head of luxury and lifestyle brands for Hilton Worldwide, describing an emerging class of young, wealthy travelers
Many of the issues underlying the changing attitudes toward luxury have been brewing for some time with only incremental impact, but a more complex, textured and diversified society might well assert itself in 2014. There are always pitfalls and opportunities for our industry when societal shifts become more pronounced, but the only real danger is for those who assume that what worked last year will work next year.
No matter which segment of the travel industry you currently serve, you, too, might want to sit in coach, eyes wide open, on your next trip. Email Arnie Weissmann at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.