Ah, the good old days, when first class really meant something: shrimp cocktail, china and crystal--and an extra $1,000 or more tacked on to the price of your ticket. Now the seafood might be a chicken breast, but at least you're being fed, unlike the folks in steerage. And you might be paying only $100 or $150 more than they are for all the extra legroom.

"The compression of the fare spectrum is a pretty apparent phenomenon," says Steve Hendrickson of Sabre Holdings, the Texas technology firm that owns Travelocity and handles reservations for the airlines. He says the top end of the fare structure just isn't what it used to be. For example, a recent fare for an unrestricted coach ticket on US Airways from Baltimore to Los Angeles was $474; a first-class seat on United at the same time was selling for $560. A recent Continental flight from Boston to Houston was $312 in coach, and only $200 more in first class.

Financially troubled airlines like US Airways and Delta have simplified their fare schedules. What used to be a dozen or more price tiers is now four or five. And airlines that used to give away their first-class seats at the gate as upgrades or loyalty rewards now find that things go smoother when they sell those seats in advance instead, even if they aren't charging a lot for them. All this makes for a sweet deal for frequent business fliers. Even if they have to endure going without the gourmet dining of yesteryear.