In-Flight Wealth Disparity Is Hastening America’s Cultural Revolution


These bourgeois pigs in business class must be purged from our skies. Why let them board an airplane early, free from the desperate urge to jostle for a space in the overhead bin for their sensible leather carry-on just so they can sip mimosas and sneer at the poor, corn syrup-coated plebes seated in zones 2 through 6 as they haul all of their worldly possessions to the back of the plane? It’s wholly unjust that the elitist scum spreading their legs at the front of the plane should travel so much more luxuriously than their fellow humans in coach, which has, thanks to the inexorable normalization of air travel, become little more than a Greyhound bus that makes your ears pop and may, at any moment, plummet from the skies, leaving you and your discount Travelocity boarding pass ignominiously vaporized in the Catskills. Everyone on the plane may, in that case, die, but only the business class passengers die with dignity.

Having learned no historical lessons about what happens when you make rich people’s lives easier while neglecting the poor, downtrodden masses, airlines have set about making the first class and business class traveling experience just about as swell as you can imagine. Even the once-egalitarian JetBlue has started offering premium seat assignments, and while that change of policy is partially thanks to a stagnant economy, the real airline money has always been at the front of the plane. Airlines make lots of money on premium seats because it doesn’t cost a whole lot to offer somebody free reign over a cookie basket and a leather seat that wasn’t designed for gibbon with scoliosis. “Service-sensitive” passengers, as they’ve been dubbed, can’t abide the indecency of coach, so they’ll fork over the extra cash for a few perks.

Thanks to the economy, though, the gap between “service-sensitive” (read: moneyed) and “price-sensitive” (read: poor) fliers has grown. The rich will pay more for better service, while the poor are willing to put up with just about any indignity or surcharge airlines can subject them to because they don’t have a choice.

From NBC News:

After the economy crashed in 2008, airline passengers began to fall much more solidly into two distinct customer types, said Bijan Vasigh, a professor at the Business College at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “Some are price sensitive, mainly interested in lowest ticket price, and the other group is service sensitive — they’re not really looking at cheapest price, but for comfort and amenities,” he said.
Though the recession deepened that trend, it did not create it. “Over the past 10 years, income has not increased uniformly,” Vasigh noted. “We’re seeing more lower income people, but for the service-sensitive the level of income has increased more than the average family.”
Since the profit margin for airlines is low on seats sold to the former group — those in the economy class — airlines have begun to rely more heavily on their price-blind customers.

The growing income disparity is being reflected and magnified in the commercial airliner. Delta, American, and United are all offering even nicer business class amenities, such as lie-flat beds and a personal flight attendant who will whisper lullabies into the ears of each traveler about all the good life choices he or she has made to wind up in such a rarefied paradise. Meanwhile, the economy passengers are sitting on their overturned mop buckets, eyeing their suspiciously noose-like safety harnesses and wondering whether or not the pilot will ask them to please swab the aisle before they get off the plane.

It’s pointless to bemoan the surcease of business class amenities — there’s a market for such things, and, if someone’s willing to drop several thousand dollars to fly from Burbank to JFK with access to a champagne fountain, that’s fine. The problem is that flying economy is so awful it almost seems like airlines are punishing their passengers for buying cheap tickets. I mean, of course that’s not happening, but when you hear the flight attendant’s announcement for everyone to clean out the seatback pocket in front of you so the next passengers don’t have to wade through a stratified pile of your gum wrappers and aborted sudoku puzzles, well, it’s hard to feel like you’re an adult who purchased a service and not a child who’s been coerced into a school trip to Trenton (Trenton is the worst, worst, WORST state capital).

Couldn’t some of the revenue from those inflated business-class fares be used to make sure each coach passenger has a fresh in-flight magazine with an unsullied crossword puzzle and a complimentary can of ginger ale? On small regional flights, business class isn’t even that special. Really, it’s just a gauntlet of shame that the people with economy class tickets must endure to remind themselves that they’ve somehow blundered through life an indigent failure, wholly incapable of embarking on a semi-comfortable airplane ride. Airlines can keep their social hierarchies in place. They can make business class as pleasant as possible. It’d just be nice if making business nice didn’t also involve making coach so shitty that it helped breed class resentment.

Image via Getty

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