Airline Coach Travel Is Back to Its Pre-Recession Levels, Thanks in Part to Premium Cannibalization

Last Updated May 25, 2010 3:18 PM EDT

The March 2010 International Air Transport Association (IATA) Premium Traffic Monitor is out, and it really highlights the difference between premium and coach traffic. Coach traffic has now returned to pre-recession levels while premium traffic remains well behind, although it continues to ramp up.

In March, coach traffic was up only 8.8 percent over the previous year. This is primarily due to the fact that coach travel didn't drop nearly as much as premium travel did. Up in the pointy end up of the plane, March traffic rose a sprightly 10.8 percent, but it's still 15 percent below where it was before the recession hit.

IATA put out a good graphic to help grasp the situation: As you can see, there's a lot more volatility in the premium cabin, and that's for good reason. The premium cabin is where the high dollar business traveler rules. In the recession, business travel plummeted, and the travel that remained was often downgraded into coach class. Meanwhile in coach, the numbers were bolstered by those business travelers downgrading. Also, the visiting friends and relatives traffic is much more steady than most other segments.

So now we see that coach has recovered from its shallow dive but premium traffic still has a ways to go from its much deeper trough. There's nothing that airlines could have done to avoid these trends, but they should be breathing something of a sigh of a relief now that traffic is returning quickly.