Love it or hate it, flying coach has never been more complicated.
Airlines are dividing up the scores of seats behind first or business class into smaller and smaller sections, each with their own set of perks — or lack thereof. The strategy is playing out in the refurbished cabins and new jets of major U.S. airlines. Carriers are nudging passengers to shell out more for comforts like extra legroom, better food and seat-back screens, or perks that used to come with the cost of a ticket, such a coveted aisle seat or one next to your travel partner, or the use of overhead bins.
Coach class's roots stretch back to 1950s and '60s when it caught on with carriers that tried to fill more seats with cheaper fares in exchange for a more stripped-down service, since business travelers or other high-paying flyers didn't fill the planes.
"Business travelers have always been the bread and butter of aviation," said Bob van der Linden, chairman of the aeronautics department at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. "They couldn't get a full airplane full of businessmen on every flight."
Business and other premium cabins remain an outsize source of revenue for airlines. They accounted for 5.3 percent of international passenger traffic but generated 27 percent of revenue last year, according to the International Air Transport Association, an industry group that represents about 80 percent of the world's airlines. Last week, Delta Air Lines' CEO said the airline is less reliant on coach-cabin revenue as demand for lucrative premium-class seats has surged.
But the coach cabin is often the largest piece of the pie, and airlines are paying special attention about how to divide it up as they fit more seats on board and travel demand climbs.