THE DECLINE OF FIRST CLASS On most airlines in the U.S., flying in the front cabin is no longer worth the price of a full-fare ticket.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – First-class flying has hit a downdraft in the U.S. In the first flush of deregulation, airlines piled on amenities, from caviar to free helicopter flights between airport and downtown, in a competitive battle to do best by the lucky few up front. The upper-echelon business traveler could foresee life getting better all the time. Alas, it was not to be. First-class travelers still get pampered on international routes. But airlines in the U.S. no longer deserve the 30% to , 225% first-class premium over coach fare. Indeed, some airlines have begun to sell first-class tickets at discount, an unprecedented acknowledgment of a softening market. Airline service in general has declined over the past several years, and in first class the deterioration is glaring. On a recent reportorial journey covering 35,000 miles on 34 flights with 15 airlines, I mostly ate bad food served by indifferent flight attendants; the planes I flew in were often grubby. ''It's tragic,'' says a former U.S. Senator, a longtime first-class flier. ''The planes are dirty, the restrooms are filthy, and the food is a disgrace.'' Deregulation gave, and deregulation took away. After the early rush to lay on the goodies came savage price wars that made full-fare coach travelers, mainly people flying on business, more valuable than ever. These customers pay roughly 17 cents a mile, vs. as little as 4 cents for discount passengers. Partly to attract them, airlines concocted the frequent-flier programs that reward regular travelers with first-class tickets at little or no increase in cost.

At the same time, full-fare passengers were deserting the front cabin. Only 41% of U.S. first-class fliers paid full fare last year, according to the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group, vs. 78% in 1979. ''Without frequent fliers, we would have no one in first class,'' says Al Kolakowski, a Delta assistant vice president for sales. Airlines still say they make money on first class, partly because they count the full coach fares frequent fliers pay as first-class revenues when those passengers settle into their bargain seats up front. But the airlines have little incentive to provide lavish service. ONE AIRLINE has been struggling to offer ultra-luxurious service, but it is not flying anywhere right now. Regent Air dropped its sole route between Newark and Los Angeles last February because it could not generate enough business. It plans to start service between Honolulu and New York, Chicago, and Detroit in June, and vows it will return with its old style, which was singular. Its two Boeing 727s each were fitted out with just 34 swiveling, leather-upholstered chairs; good-looking, tuxedo-clad flight attendants served elegant meals on fine china and poured drinks from an art deco bar in mid- cabin. Regent lost money charging $785 coast to coast, only $50 more than the usual first-class fare; it won't say what the new rates will be, but it expects to be competitive with other carriers. - People Express, the original post-deregulation discount carrier, says it is making money on first class by doing what it does best: undercutting competitors. It also provides stellar service, including a separate check-in line. People currently offers domestic first class only on flights between Newark and Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Denver, but plans to expand the service by year's end to more than 100 of the 148 cities People and its Frontier subsidiary serve. People's approach is exemplary. The seat is cheap ($325 between Newark and the West Coast), and the refreshment is excellent: a cold buffet of filet mignon with horseradish sauce, green pasta with poached chicken, and sesame shrimp, served with care and well worth the $15 price. The credit card voucher is presented on a silver platter accompanied by a Godiva chocolate. People's recently announced frequent-flier program could generate a lot of discount first-class business. The program rewards not only fliers but their employers as well, who get a mileage credit equal to 25% of the flier's credit that can be assigned to other employees traveling on People. Unlike the current added-cost meal service, People is offering free food and drinks on the Denver-Newark route and may extend the freebies to other first-class routes. But costs are low to begin with, and the airline insists that it will not have to be grudging about laying on the amenities. Bucking the temptation to let service slide, several older airlines still offer vestiges of yesterday's first-class glory. For ten years now, American and Delta have scored at the top of surveys by the International Airline Passengers Association for providing consistently good domestic service, and my experience suggests why. American flight attendants addressed first-class passengers by name, using a computer-generated list. On a flight from Dallas to San Francisco, the chicken with apple-brandy sauce was surprisingly tasty and the 1982 Sonoma Vineyards Chardonnay a cut above the usual low-grade wines and champagnes served on other carriers. Delta's food service, not quite on a par with American's, was nonetheless far superior to the depressing glop I encountered on most other carriers, and the flight crews were consistently friendly and competent. NORTHWEST, Republic, Continental, and Western seem to excel in small touches. Northwest's personable attendants warm the little packets of almonds they serve with drinks; the superior delicatessen-style sandwiches come on Royal Doulton china. Western also serves fresh, well-prepared sandwiches in place of mediocre hot food on some flights; the company says it wants to distinguish itself with first-class service so it can woo frequent fliers from competitors. At Republic flowers are apt to grace the breakfast tray; attendants bring hot towels at the beginning and end of the meal. Continental's meals are a cut above average; on breakfast flights you get a fine selection of muffins, croissants, and pastries. A few airlines are facing up to the new realities and cutting first-class fares. ''The list price for first class is wildly inflated,'' says James V. O'Donnell, Continental's vice president for marketing services. Continental is now selling first-class tickets at prices that O'Donnell says are comparable to competitors' coach; United has matched it on competing Denver routes. Coach passengers on Delta and Republic can ease into a first-class seat for $15 to $45 over the full coach fare. Deregulation's economics suggest that the golden age of first-class travel is gone for good. Whether the front cabin becomes a permanent pawn of coach or a desirable space in its own right depends on whether U.S. airlines can find ingenious ways to elevate service and still bring down costs. Until they can, the full-fare first-class seat will not be worth the price of admission.