The return of third class travel

When railway travel was new in the 19th century, carriages came in three claases, 1st for the rich, 2nd for the middle class, and 3rd for the working class. That sort of class system went out of fashion in the 1950’s, and since then most railways only have 2 classes. So do many airplanes, having business and economy as choices, with “1st class” only available on a few long-haul flights.

I am currently sitting in a train, 1st class carriage, from Brussels to Paris. And I’m reading an announcement that from December on this high-speed railway will have economy, comfort, and prestige instead of 1st and 2nd class. Which of course means that if you travel economy, you are effectively travelling in 3rd class, there being two better options on offer. That isn’t an outlier, airlines have started to introduce “economy plus” between economy and business, also turning economy into 3rd class. We aren’t quite back to wooden benches yet, but everybody knows how comfort has diminished in economy class over the last decade. Frequent travellers have many a horror story to tell.

Somehow I feel there is a vicious circle involved here. As the name “business” suggests, the target customer for a business seat is a traveller whose ticket has been bought by his company. But many companies have become less generous over the years, forcing their employees to travel economy, at least on shorter voyages. So the idea of railroads and airlines is to get companies to at least pay for an intermediate option. But of course the response of companies is going to be to never pay for business class again, the economy plus option being deemed sufficient.

Of course a 3 class system is also a symptom of a less egalitarian, more unequal society. And as a student of history and economy I know that unequal societies have a strong tendency to go horribly wrong. So 3rd class isn’t something I think is a good idea.