Airlines have created a labyrinth of classes and alliances

Fifty years ago today, the nation celebrated: Third Class was abolished on British Railways. Trains would henceforth comprise just First and Second. And, for half a century, with a certain amount of messing about (such as Second being re-branded as Standard in the Nineties, a move that coincided with a slide in standards of both safety and timekeeping), the same alternatives prevail.

At the time, Economy Class on aircraft was a concept only four years old; prior to 1952, all flying was one-class-only: First Class. But today aviation has a ludicrous number of classes, with British Airways alone possessing seven.

Count them: on BA's long-haul flights you can (wallet permitting) choose from First, Club World, World Traveller Plus and World Traveller (BA likes to employ classy names even at the lower end of its hierarchy; other airlines call these Premium Economy and Economy). Within Europe, the alternatives are Club Europe and Euro Traveller, both of which are less well-appointed than their intercontinental counterparts. And the seventh class was introduced a couple of months ago: BA Connect, the airline's second foray into no-frills flying after the adventure with Go (now part of easyJet).

The passenger flying from the UK has many more strata to consider. Bottom of the heap, at least in terms of personal space, is probably the densely packed charter flight; by comparison, even parsimonious Ryanair is generous with its seat pitch. Business class on many of the less glamorous airlines flying from Britain, such as Air Mauritius, China Eastern or Cubana, is more of a glorified Premium Economy now that lie-flat beds are becoming standard in business.

A new degree of comfort is likely to be established at the end of this year, when Singapore Airlines launches the Airbus A380; the extra space provided by the "Superjumbo", and the need for the carrier to establish an early lead in its quest to woo the high-spender, means you can expect private-jet standards for people prepared to pay top Singapore dollar for the privilege.

EVEN IN the days of the Soviet Union, some Aeroflot passengers were more equal than others. But within Europe, the trend is towards egalitarianism. Business Class cabins are steadily emptying because fewer and fewer enterprises can justify paying the absurd premiums charged; BA recently scrapped Club Europe on its regional routes, and you can expect others to follow suit soon. As passengers move into the cheap seats, the economics of maintaining a separate cabin and higher service provision no longer add up on many routes. In contrast, the long-haul market can happily be sliced into three, four or more classes to meet the complex and demanding bunch of long-haul customers.

The Premier League long-haul airlines - notably British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Thai and Virgin Atlantic - spend a fortune competing ferociously with each other for the high-spending business traveller. The companies are at each other's throats on the Heathrow-Sydney route, and many more besides. Yet most of them also have to bite their corporate lips and pretend that they offer similar standards to their rivals, at least when those foes are part of the same alliance. BA, Cathay and Qantas offer "a common commitment to high standards of quality, service and safety" within the Oneworld alliance, while Singapore Airlines and Thai are members of Star.

The alliances would like us to believe that you can expect equally high standards on all airlines. While my experience of anything better than basic economy is limited to the point of being a statistical freak, the cheap seats on Singapore Airlines are better appointed than those on Thai, and in a different league from another Star Alliance member, Spanair.

ANOTHER BENEFIT that is trumpeted by alliances is the ease of connections. Yet the Oneworld alliance at Heathrow is a mess. Many passengers switching between BA and one of its partners have to change terminals. When the new Terminal 5 opens in 2008, the trek will continue; the new structure not have enough room for BA, let alone its Oneworld partners - whoever they may be by then.

To lose one ally is unfortunate, as Oneworld found when Canadian Airlines was swallowed up by Air Canada: the alliance lost a useful member, and its HQ, in Vancouver, now looks rather silly as it is located in a Oneworld-free nation. To lose a second partner looks like carelessness. Yet from early next year, Aer Lingus is bailing out. The Irish airline boasts that "each week we bring our unique brand of service to thousands of Oneworld customers", but can no longer justify the dues of this exclusive club.

Three larger carriers - Japan Airlines, Malev of Hungary and Royal Jordanian - are about to join Oneworld, which will continue the upward fortunes of the alliance. But increasingly, airlines regard alliances as "open" relationships.

Air New Zealand's new inflight standards have brought it Premier League status. In October the Kiwi airline will become the first Star Alliance member to offer services on the key route from Heathrow to Hong Kong, as part of its new round-the world service via Auckland and Los Angeles. Yet, across the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, it is getting into bed with Qantas - of Oneworld - to offer coordinated schedules and to take some of the brutality out of this fierce market.

SOME AIRLINES bed-hop even more outrageously than some pilots. One moment Virgin Atlantic enjoys an Asian liaison with Malaysian, the next it snuggles up to Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand, both of Star. Sir Richard Branson's airline also "code-shares" on its US routes with Continental, part of the Skyteam alliance.

Hardly a one-class act. What was the name of this promiscuous airline again?