There are four classes available in traditional air travel, but as the economic climate becomes less ideal, airlines are more inclined to eliminate or adapt those classes, or blur the lines between them. A number of low-cost carriers, including Jet Blue and Southwest, have become bigger players in the marketplace, and in order to get more seats into a plane, the classes are all but eliminated and just about everyone flies coach class.
First class is the luxury option available on many planes. There are a limited number of first class seats, a maximum of 16 in the largest planes, and as few as eight in smaller planes. The first class cabin is located at the front and has larger, more comfortable seats with more leg room and an element of privacy. Many first class sections on some larger longer-run aircraft also have personal TV screens at each seat. Alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are complimentary in first class and gourmet meals are the norm, with real forks and spoons instead of plastic. First class passengers usually have a bathroom reserved for their use. On some longer-haul international airlines, first class cabins can be found that are designed as private suites. First class passengers are also given early boarding privileges.
The mid-range travel option that has become more popular for frequent fliers is known as business class or executive class. Business class was first introduced by Qantas in 1979 and many European airlines have since eliminated first class and replaced it with an expanded business class. On many airlines, business class has the same seat sizes as economy, but an increased level of service. Similar to the first class section, there is free alcoholic beverage service in business class and generally the quality of the meals is better. Some shorter-haul airlines do not offer business class at all, but offer a limited number of first class seats and a full economy class.
Economy class is also commonly referred to as coach class, and it is preferable for a large number of travelers because it is so much less expensive. Leg room is limited, as is food and beverage service. On longer flights, in-flight entertainment is available, and personal video screens with a choice of entertainment options are becoming more common to replace the cabin screens that had been the norm in economy class. Some airlines provide headsets for the audio feed at no cost, while others charge a fee, but passengers can bring their own headphones. Meals are becoming less common in economy class on U.S. airlines, where peanuts and beverage service are more regularly seen. Passengers are often encouraged to bring their own meals on board; some flights offer meals for purchase. Soft drinks are free, but alcoholic beverages are only available with a fee.
Premium economy is a more recent addition to the airline travel classes as airlines look to provide services that will generate additional revenues. Premium economy comes in two different types, depending upon the airline and the size of the airplane. It can be as simple as an enhanced version of economy class, with a designated portion of the cabin set up with a few rows of seats removed to give the others more leg room. It might also come with additional service amenities or a better collection of entertainment options. Premium economy is occasionally a more significant service upgrade, with a set-off cabin area and some of the services more similar to the business class such as a better meal service and more in-seat options like laptop power or phone service.