Unfortunately, my wife and I have to fly on the airlines a fair amount because we have family in various locations, including Europe.
Aboard a commercial airplane, the quality of the seat that you get depends on how much you are willing, and/or able, to pay. People with enough money sit in large, comfortable seats with plenty of room, while sardines, like us, get canned with some olive oil, sandwiched together in each other’s laps.
But it doesn’t end there. People in first class or business class get better food and better drinks, including perks like free champagne. They also get their own, dedicated flight attendants – the best ones, who treat their passengers like royalty instead of cattle on their way down the chute to be “bolted.”
First and business class passengers are allowed to board the plane first, so that they can be sure to have enough space in theoverhead luggage compartments for their carry-ons and jackets and so that they can get comfortable and… drink a glass of champagne.
First and business class passengers have their own bathrooms, where the “riff-raff” are not allowed. After all, we usually carry diseases and various and sundry types of filth. And it doesn’t end there!
In the terminal, before passengers even get near an actual airplane, the upper-classes (and sometimes coach passengers who have paid to join an airlines “elite club,” or something like that) don’t have to stand in long lines, no sir-ree. They have their own line with their own attendants. And they actually get tended to by a real human-being, whereas the poor folk wait for an hour to fight with a robot and wait their turn to get help from the one ticketing agent on slum duty.
Then, the elite are swept into their private club-waiting-areas, where they don’t have to risk rubbing shoulders with the unwashed masses. They then magically appear to board the plane, before their admirers.
So what, you say? People who pay more get more. That’s the way things work. Well, that’s just fine. Capitalism at work. What bothers me about this is that the price differential between these levels, hell vs. heaven, is so, incredibly huge and unreasonable. Why can’t the airlines use some of the outrageous profits they extract from the superior beings to make life at least tolerable for the rest of us? Why can’t they cut their shareholder dividends by 1% so that coach passengers aren’t inhaling the hair of the person in the seat in front of them? Couldn’t they put just a little more padding in the seats?
I spent $160, after our last flight to Europe, for a chiropractor to literally straighten my ass out. My seat was incredibly uncomfortable (although I have to say that the staff on our Air France flights were very nice). Of course, this isn’t nearly enough that I could have just avoided this by buying a business class ticket.
The real purpose of the disparity between ticket categories is not to pay for extra room and services; the purpose is the separation, itself. The same principle behind the country club. While this principle doesn’t necessarily apply to every member, the purpose of a country club is to have a haven, away from home, where one is not at risk of contact with the working class.
First or even business class seats on an airline usually cost ten times what a coach seat costs. Is that to cover the cost of a glass of champagne? Is it to cover the cost of selling only four seats per row instead of 6? No. The supply side of the supply and demand equation is irrelevant, here. That price is what some people are willing to pay for a little more comfort, and a lot less exposure… to the untouchables of society – you and me.
The point here is that separation has almost no cost of production. In other words, it’s almost pure profit. The airlines charge $9,000 extra for a seat in business class, and for that they provide a little more space, some champagne, and some pampering. The cost of all this is certainly nowhere near this price. But this money get’s sucked out of the system in the form of almost-untaxed (especially with multinational corporations) capital gains for investors. That’s why it’s not used to improve travel for ALL passengers.
Some might say that things are this bad only because passengers shop by price alone. That they are obviously willing to suffer the indignities of flying coach in order to save money. Well, in our case, it’s family obligations that make us “willing.” If it weren’t for that, We’d only go on vacations that were within an hour’s drive.
At any rate, economics are so often used as justification for treating people like animals. Degrading others degrades the degrader. The airlines would only dignify themselves by dignifying their passengers, and doing away with the caste system. Unpack the sardines!
Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.