By Robert McGarvey
Blogger Ben Schlappig at One Mile at a Time recently threw a very large spanner in the delicate machinery of many press outlets which rush to cover new first class air cabins. According to Schlappig, “All the time I see mainstream media articles ranking the world’s best first class products. There’s only one problem — the person writing the story typically hasn’t actually flown any of the products, and just uses airline-provided images and marketing bullets for their rankings.”
Skift thought enough about that allegation that it ran this.
Color me surprised that there is a brouhaha about this. It may not be good journalism but it is also standard operating procedure.
A lot of coverage of travel plays by different rules than, say, political reporting or business reporting.
I know enough about hotel coverage to know that in many, many cases – possibly most – the writers who cover hotel stays have benefitted from comped rooms. Typically, too, there’s no acknowledgement that this is so. Does getting a free stay influence how a writer reviews a hotel? Probably yes but I’m unaware of any research into this. In my own case, I have gotten many free hotel nights but I have rarely covered hotels as such. It’s not my beat. I have put hotels in lists – “where to stay in Berlin Mitte” — but that’s about it.
As for air, in years past I often got free seats, but often, too, they were in coach and I don’t think I ever wrote about specific flights. Coach flights are fungible in my mind.
The new breed first class cabins are a different breed however. They definitely are not fungible.
Business travel blogger Joe Brancatelli may believe that first class cabins are dying – he has the numbers to prove his point – and CNBC says similar. So does the Telegraph. So does Bloomberg. But nonetheless we do like reading about how the other half lives.
Thus a shower of press write ups about first class air.
Definitely, too, much of it is written by people who have never stepped inside the cabin.
Singapore Air for instance is now winning an avalanche of press for its new first class cabin which does not debut until December and, therefore, nobody has flown it. And yet the press coverage multiplies.
Some publications have covered the war among airlines to provide yet more dazzling features up front.
Now tell me this: in glancing at this coverage do you believe the writers have in fact stepped in the cabins and flown long flights?
I agree with Schlappig, most of this front cabin coverage is based on press releases and photo libraries supplied by the carriers. But what’s the harm in that?
Far better would be an actual review of a cabin – here’s a nice piece about flying business class on Vietnam Air with at least one grumble voiced – but doing that with the new first class cabins is difficult. Seats are few, they are very expensive, and they usually are on long flights.
Besides, the whole point of the wave of coverage pre debut is to stir up interest in buying tickets when the cabins are ready to fly.
But even if offered a freebie when the Singapore Air flight begins, I’m unsure I’d accept because my personal ROI – involving my time – probably would be pathetic.
Would I write up the cabin now if a paying editor requested I use the press release? Probably not. I don’t see that I could say anything that hasn’t already been said and, personally, I just don’t like doing stories that are entirely based on press handouts. And I do think writers who write up the cabins based solely on press materials should note this.
Brancatelli, meantime, pointed out to me that just about all the press reviews of front cabins miss the mark for business travelers because they aren’t written from a business travel perspective. He’s right. The write ups are about fluffy PJs, good champagne, gourmet delicacies, and other tokens of the posh life. But when I travel upfront I don’t drink alcohol and I judge my flight on the quality of my sleep and the usability of the workspace to do some quality work. If the food is health focused, all the better. The business travelers I talk with tell me their concerns are similar. Not a one has ever mentioned the slippers that might be available. So, yes, Joe is right when he snorts that many of the front cabin reviews are “ludicrous” when read by a business traveler.
That’s why what I personally would like to write rather than a cabin review based on press handouts would be a story based on interviews of maybe six paying passengers about their Singapore Air first class experience. Is it worth the money? What did you do? How did you sleep? What did you eat? It would be great if it were a Rashomon but if they all agreed it was a great flight, money well spent, that would be great too.
Maybe that is a story I will write some day. But it will have to wait until December when the cabin is actually open to the public.
Until then all we have are the handouts.