Travel, WOOFS, and the Front of the Plane

Lewis Walker |

English novelist, P. D. James (1920-2014), observed, “First-class travel, provided one hasn’t to pay for it oneself, is the most insidiously addictive of life’s luxuries.” Airline marketing gurus know that to be true, hence loyalty programs featuring frequent flyer upgrades to first class as a coveted perk. With Delta as the dominant carrier in Atlanta, the competition for upgrades is fierce.

Delta SkyMiles members may move through four Medallion tiers: Silver, Gold,  Platinum, and ultimately chasing pinnacle status, Diamond. Prior to COVID-19, given the amount of business flying from, to, and through our airport, upgrades to first class grew increasingly rare unless one maintained Diamond status. Even so, on busy travel days it was common to see travelers with Diamond luggage tags sitting in coach.

Air traffic is increasing, but still lagging pre-pandemic levels. Airlines are scrambling to make perks more attractive, wary that many business travelers that pay premium fares will not return anytime soon, if at all. This scribe thinks the fear that Zoom and other Internet tools will inhibit travel is a bit overdone. In many circumstances, especially for building relationships, face-to-face is far superior to cyberspace. Plus, people want to “get out there.” Travel to Florida is booming.  For a week in mid-June, the Ritz-Carleton in Sarasota was virtually sold out. The only room left was a Club Level King at over $1300 per night with taxes and fees. Over a weekend in late March, the storied Grove Park Inn in Ashville was at 97% occupancy. Top tour operators report surging demand for 2022 itineraries.

What may save the airlines from a dearth of premium flyers are WOOFS, “well-off-older-folks.” WOOFS are those that planned well, accumulated reasonably sizeable stock portfolios and other financial assets, perhaps built and sold a valuable business, or may also have holdings of productive assets such as real estate, timberland, energy reserves, etc. Unlike the 2007-2008 market slump, after the drop early in 2020 midst pandemic uncertainties, the U. S. stock market roared back. Recognizing that many people suffered in the pandemic, and continue to do so, WOOFS have stepped up tax-wise charitable giving, especially those that can make donations with untaxed dollars out of qualified retirement plans.

But WOOFS also like to travel, and many of those that can are buying first and business class tickets. Partly out of COVID-19 sensitivity, but also out of comfort considerations, they eschew being crammed sardine-like into 3-across rows with minimal leg room, preferring the spaciousness of seats up front and lay-flat beds for long distance international travel. This trend is likely to accelerate as more countries ease travel restrictions.

Many airlines provide an alternative between coach and first or business class, at fares above coach but lower than first and business class. On Delta domestic, it’s Economy Comfort. On most of Delta’s aircraft, the seating is 3-across, but you get a bit more leg room and perhaps better snacks, and you’re farther forward in the cabin compared to coach. But if you’re traveling solo, or with a companion, on full flights you or your traveling partner may be next to a potentially sneezing or coughing stranger.

On longer international flights, a number of carriers, Delta included, have inserted a separate cabin between first or business class and coach. For fares lower than first or business class, but higher than coach, Delta’s new Premium Select class offers more leg room, a wider seat, a bit more recline, and upgraded food and beverage service. On Delta’s Airbus A-350-900 and some B-777-200ER aircraft, the seating is 2-4-2. A window and aisle seat on the 2-seat side of the plane is ideal for a couple. Other long-haul carriers may offer a similar arrangement. Check for seat maps for all carriers. Seatguru highlights good and “bad” seats, those too close to galleys or rest rooms, limited or no recline, missing window, etc. If you’re going to pay a premium fare, snag the seat(s) you want!

Plan ahead. If you’re going abroad, most countries require passports to be current and more than six months from expiration date. Due to pandemic-related factors, the processing time for new applications and renewals has been stretched out. Per a current State Department update, allow at least 10-12 weeks for new passport issue or renewal for a $60 fee. For $120, you can pay for expedited service of 4-6 weeks. For peace of mind, allow even more time.

Humorist and newspaper columnist Robert Benchley (1889-1945) opined, “In America there are two classes of travel─first class and with children.” But we see more WOOFS springing for a family adventure with their children and grandchildren in America and abroad. Think about it. A creative trip is an amazing education, a memory-building legacy that even Mr. Benchley likely would applaud were he still with us.