Made my first flight I was 9 years old. I remember vividly that you could ask and go talk with the pilot in the cabin. I did it a few times over the years. This strongly quite similar what travellers are getting in first/business class today.
Nowadays, while there is still a romantic notion in flying in most people mind, there is little left in the everyday execution. Sometimes, you may even feel in bootcamps when a TSA officer is talking to you at security, some yelling as loud as they can. I remember that at certain times you almost had to strip down in underwear going to security and then there is the continued fascination with shoes in certain countries, which has been gone for years now almost everywhere in the OECD countries.
Economy class is packed as much as possible, limited only by some remaining sense of decencies or maybe fear of public out cry and possible imposition of higher standard by public authorities (the image below is from a recent WIRED post about the “budget economy class inside an A380!).
Yes, you do get more (much more) floor space in business/first class. It makes little difference in my experience for short flights. However, for overnight flights or very long flights, that space is making a huge difference. I made two trips to Australia 6 months apart no so long ago, one in economy class and one for which I was able to get an upgrade (would be impossible now with the new rule change at Air Canada without paying $…each way) to the first class cabin. Only 21 persons total in our section, much quieter, better food, a seat that become flat bed and in which you can really sleep (I had a good 7 hours straight!). Yes it does make quite a difference when you arrive at destination and actually feel quite good and ready to have a productive day.
This brings me to the value of frequent flyer status. Yes I like it…when you can get enough “qualifying” miles to reach them. No line for chek-in, special lines for security, a much quieter environment of lounges (both departure and arrival lounges) and pre boarding priority (no long lines again and no “fighting” to get a space for your carry-on luggage. Also nothing of this non-sense of luggage fees and priority bags out of the airplane (if your tags do not fall off that is!). You also used to be able to put those earn miles to good use in getting not only travel tickets (still easy to do) but also upgrades. The latter is now sadly much more difficult.
The overall value of those accumulated “qualifying” miles seems to have gone down significantly. I am not quite sure if the airline industry is the victim of their programs but they have started limiting the quantity of qualifying miles you can earn. Not so long ago, you were traveling 3000 miles, you got 3000 miles. Now it depends on the fee structure, continental or international flight and so on. For the same traveled distance you can have a factor of 6 in the “status miles” accumulated. Also some airlines are no longer recognizing miles accumulated on their partners’ flights if you have not accumulated at least 50% of the required “qualifying” miles or segments with them.
That being said, do not get me wrong: I like to travel, see new places, meet peoples. However, air travel has nothing romantic anymore. It is a moving business. The fact that it is moving peoples does not change the fundamentals, unfortunately.