Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

Something Ordinary In The Air

I worked for a brief time for a lawyer in London named Randolph Fields, who was co-founder of what became Virgin Airlines, among a lot of other things. (He died aged just 44, I was sad to learn, in 1997.) He was a guy simply busting with life, when I knew him; a very smart and I think a kind man underneath all the rich-guy mucho-macho posturing, fond of fast living and poker.

As they designed their new airline, Fields and Richard Branson worked through zillions of maddening details, from buying their first plane (a complicated affair) to applying for routes to developing all the new amenities they'd be offering. Fields was very pleased with the name they'd chosen for their First Class service: Upper Class. At one point he asked us minions what we thought the name of the Economy service should be. I piped up immediately: Working Class.

Fields was just appalled. I insisted: "What?! Come on. It's Class, and it is Working, that is the perfect name!" I couldn't imagine why they thought it would be okay to have Upper Class without Working Class, as if one didn't require the other. I suppose in their minds it was amusing and flip to have Upper Class: a lark, whereas to point out explicitly that Economy fliers were Non-U would be calling too much attention to the weird divide between First Class and Economy, a chasm that has only grown deeper since those days: the real-world illustration of inequality that takes place in the narrow walkways of airplanes hundreds of thousands of times every day.

There is something inherently degrading about the existence of first class air travel, whether you are sitting in it or having to walk through the rows of plush well-appointed seats to the more-cramped, less-reclining ones behind. Once in a while, in passing through to your own humble seat you might catch the eye of one of the Upper Class. More often, they avoid looking at you. Or when you yourself are occupying a First or Business seat through luck or extravagance, that is uncomfortable in a different way; maybe you don't look up from your mimosa, either.

Unless you are fairly wide and/or fairly tall, those few inches of extra room won't make much difference, you're going to be stuck there and uncomfortable no matter what; why pay hundreds or thousands of dollars more simply to emerge five minutes earlier from an airplane that is, with any luck, landing at the same time for every passenger? Not that I'm opposed to luxury, in its place. But when what's on offer appears largely to be Superiority For Hire, it seems ridiculous, contemptible even, like the privilege queues on offer these days at theme parks. Contrary to what the marketing juggernaut would like us to believe, you can buy superior things, but you can't buy superiority for yourself, not with any amount of dough, and the more you spend the less you will succeed.

The silliest part of the whole business is that those who habitually fly first class are liable to be far more concerned with their own low status relative to those who wouldn't be caught dead flying commercial than they are with the fate of the Economy traveler. The system, like the larger one enclosing it, seems designed to promote aggrieved and uncomfortable feelings.

First class has always been absurdly expensive, but before the advent of frequent-flier programs, it was far more common for the average person to be bumped up, and therefore it seemed less immediately "exclusive." If the plane was overbooked, for example, you might easily score a first class seat, particularly if traveling alone. Certain airlines were more lenient about this, and there were also a lot of wheezes for standby tickets at cut prices and whatnot. If the ride was very bumpy the "stewardesses" as they were then known would bust out the booze and give everyone free drinks. Air travel was just goofier, and messier, and seemed quite a bit less Us and Them.

From time to time there have been attempts made to provide reasonably more egalitarian, comfortable, cost-effective air travel—some of them very successful. I am still mourning People Express, a most efficient and pleasant means of getting from Los Angeles to Newark in the 1980s that was run roughly on the Freddie Laker model. You paid for a ticket in cash, on the plane; they'd come around with a little cart and collect your dough after takeoff. There was no first class, and they didn't serve food. The cheapest flight on that route was a red-eye jammed with mostly young people and it was cool as anything. This, too, was capitalism, just practiced in a very different way. People Express died because they diversified into separate classes. It started with their flights to London. They jettisoned their pricing model—which was very reminiscent of Jet Blue's—to chase greater fares, then had to sell, merge or face bankruptcy.

And now we learn that today's best airline, the once-invincible JetBlue, whose equal seating was to my mind the best feature of a generally excellent product, will be offering first class service beginning late next year. JetBlue believes it can beat other first-class coast-to-coast prices. Well, certainly they can. But then what?

I went along to Twitter to say how disquieting I found this news—but @JetBlue's response was even more so.


@JetBlue, so far, has had nothing to say in response to the following:

In happier news, I've just learned that the newly resuscitated People Express is starting up again, perhaps as early as next summer—with no first class.

Maria Bustillos is a journalist and critic in Los Angeles.

38 Comments / Post A Comment

JetBlue has already gone that way. Perhaps one of the nicer things was the boarding order was done by rows. None of this, we'd like to welcome our first class, premium club, diamond club, business club, bulkhead club, and one and one until the plebs can board. NOW with their preferred seating, and getting to board before everyone else, it's starting to feel more like the other commercial airlines in the States.

Drawn7979 (#242,134)

i think so too

NoReally (#217,942)

I liked People Express, but on the old Eastern shuttle, between New York and DC many times a day, you would just show up at the gate, no reservation. Around 30 minutes before departure they'd count noses, and if there were more than one plane's worth of people they would bring up a second airplane at the next gate over. Once you were in the air, they took your credit card.
It was the perfect travel model.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@NoReally But what happened if you couldn't pay? "Oh I forgot my wallet let me mail you a personal check"?

stuffisthings (#1,352)

I don't know about proper "First Class" but isn't almost everyone who flies Business or higher usually flying on someone else's dime? I shudder to think that there are actually significant numbers of people spending thousands upon thousands of dollars of their own money to sit a nice chair for a few hours and eat food that they would send back if they'd paid $20 for it in a restaurant.

Astigmatism (#1,950)

@stuffisthings I've only ever flown business when paid for by my company (which in turn bills my airfare to clients) or by paying with miles. But I always thought that business class was for the white collar, flying-on-someone-else's-dime set, while first class (on 3-class planes) was for actual rich people paying their own way. Maybe I just imagined, but none of them ever looked like they were working, or ever worked in the first place.

@Astigmatism How much does Biz class actually cost, when companies buy huge blocks of tickets, have embedded travel agency employees in their own companies, etc. Obviously it costs more, but as much as it would if you just walked up to the desk and paid for it?

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@SarahHeartburn The cost and quality difference between "first" and "business," or whatever they are called, is not often that high, and if you travel frequently it's easy to bump up with miles or a bit of extra cash (esp. if you already have "status"). It really depends on the carrier and the route.

In any case, I think most people at my workplace would give up the business class seats they are entitled to on long flights for the opportunity to fly on foreign carrier. Thanks a lot, Fly America Act!

ETA: To actually answer your question, the savings is not as significant as you might expect. We spend millions on airfare every year and our travel agent can rarely beat the most cursory Internet search. Also, a lot of business flights end up being pretty last-minute.

hockeymom (#143)

@stuffisthings I had a friend who worked at Northwest Airlines who would bump me up to First Class when there was an available seat. It was always a surprise. To be in your early 20s, earning 10-grand a year…to have a flight attendant look at your ticket and say "you've been upgraded to seat 1A", was pretty awesome.

Tuna Surprise (#573)

I actually pay for business and first class regularly. Many times it is only marginally more expensive than coach. I assume the ticket prices are primarily driven by whether there is a business demand for a particular ticket.

I flew Upper Class/First Class on Virgin from NY to London and paid a bit more than $1200 for the one way ticket. Which is really not that much more than they regularly charge for coach. It was 4th of July weekend and I assume there was no business demand.

It was worth every penny. Fully reclining bed. Amazing food. Free pajamas. Big pillow, duvet, etc., etc. Never arrived feeling more rested. But I admit that other times of the year it is cost prohibitive.

Walt (#246,761)

@stuffisthings That's only because alot of economy classes in foreign airlines are as nice or nicer than domestic business class. People want and love business class. No doubting that.

deepomega (#1,720)

Just please don't blame deregulation for this. Please.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@deepomega I blame a lack of dirigiste spirit and national pride more generally. Privatized flag carriers like Air France-KLM are miles better than the garbage American domestic flyers put up with.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@stuffisthings TRUTH.

Hello! Free booze.

Plus, these days frequent flyer program upgrades are more egalitarian(ish) than the occasional overbooked bumping up.

Free upgrade = free booze.

@Clarence Rosario We still get free wine with dinner and usually at drinkytime on flights in and out of Spain. They like a semi soused crowd of happy campers.

Dionysos (#246,668)

"There is something inherently degrading about the existence of first class air travel, whether you are sitting in it or …"

No there isn't. It's absurdly expensive, but it isn't degrading. I won't fly across an ocean in steerage, which means I travel less frequently but better. Your attitude towards business class may be because you're American and used to the crap that US airlines serve up as "first" class, but I guarantee that business in Singapore or Turkish Airlines or even Air Canada is a whole different world.

philomene (#355)

There's nothing degrading about British Airways business class when you are on a 10-12 hour flight with kids. It's awesome. They have room to play and sleep and the attendants are generally very helpful and nice and the food is often good. But US carriers do suck. They think all the unpleasantness can be bought off with a terrible warmed up cookie. First class is for chumps though. The wine is better but you have to deal with asshole captain of the universe passengers who have no regard for fellow travelers.

zidaane (#373)

"Now boarding persons with Happy Fun Miles award cards and Lugage' by Kanye."

marklondon (#11,064)

I pay because I don't want to sit next to you Maria. You may smell of wildflowers and be utterly charming, but I don't want to spend 5-14 hours watching you snack, read, watch TV, snore or anything else.
I love communal tables at a restaurant, because I know its only an hour and they don't have to climb over me to get to the bathroom (or at least, not often). I will fly 'coach' only when there is no choice, and I've never flown JetBlue because there is no choice. And I pay for my own travel – I'm no corporate whore. If I can pay an extra 150% for the ability to put up a slide, pretend you don't exist and have a lay flat bed, that is totally worth it to me.
Privacy does not mean Elite. It just means a better journey.

scrooge (#2,697)

Troll Alert! Shields Up!

KarenUhOh (#19)

The proletariat are all on Southwest. The only bumps the "elite" get there–for a couple hundred bucks, typically, per leg–is the chance to be 1st-15 onboard, and maybe, if you're at a big airport, the privilege to walk an "express" security line that's maybe 5% shorter than what the masses endure.

Otherwise, we're all the same, and if you're lucky, you get FAs with decent schtick.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@KarenUhOh true! Love 'em. My favorite one said, "in the unlikely event we land in the water, small children can be used as a flotation device."

True, but that schtick has created a cottage industry of would-be FA stand-up comedians at 35K feet. Commercial air travel is grating enough without having to hear someone try out their best Henny Youngman in an attempt to one-up the Southwest crew on my way to Minneapolis.

Although Delta's new pre-flight safety video is pretty clever: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=noE1YzvfA08

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Clarence Rosario haha! I've got such a love of terrible jokes, so, perfect for me. (They have a bad-joke animated safety video on Virgin too.)

testingwithfire (#244,161)

@KarenUhOh There was a brief shining period of about a year or so when Southwest flew between Boston and Philly. That ended last winter; Southwest said they weren't making money on it, which is amazing since the planes were always full. At that point, I started taking Amtrak instead. Haven't looked back even though it takes much longer.
If People Express starts flying between Boston and Philly I might check that out, but not dealing with TSA is worth the five extra hours, I've found.

Walt (#246,761)

@Clarence Rosario Ha, I know. The only thing I want to hear from pilot is "Look, I did three tours in Nam dodging SAM's and Mig's in an F-4. I can get you to Phoenix."

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

"My favorite thing about JetBlue is no first class"

This is the type of "salon lefty" bullshit that's really appreciated for it's "value" only among the people that (can) fly first (although, maybe not business) class. If the actual working class found out you want to keep their cost of flying from going down just for your ideological pleasure, they'd kick your ass off the plane.

Being a true socialist for us non-working class types can't be about simply "drinking beers" with the working class, it can only be about actually improving the quality of their lives.

@Niko Bellic You know, I thought about this when the news first broke. "Am I being ridiculous for mourning the loss of a more egalitarian model for one that would allow for greater price discrimination and less expensive coach flights?" And I determined that, no, I was not. They are not seeking to lower the cost of the seats in the back. They don't need to, they're already competitively low.

What they are trying to do is make more money in the front. And they're doing that by dismantling a system that was working for a lot of people who saw something different in JetBlue.

Yes, SWA has a similarly democratic ethos, but always feels like a budget airline. JetBlue felt like a low-cost but high-value airline, where all passengers were more or less equally valued (at least until the introduction of "even more legroom"). But even with EML, the prices were within reach of the middle class if they wanted a treat. EML was a subtle change that made things just a little bit worse for the average coach flier on their airline.

This is a dramatic change and I don't think it's "salon lefty" bullshit to say that one of the best things about JB was that they didn't have first class and thus all customers were equally important. I also think to suggest, as you did, that the business class fares might somehow trickle down to lower prices for the back seats is naive. Any extra cash is going right to the shareholders.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@The Woman Who Lived in a Law Degree If JetBlue was already as cheap as it could possibly be, I guarantee you the vast majority of their fliers used it because it was cheap, not because it was egalitarian. I don't dispute your reasons for being unhappy with this change, but don't try to sell it as everyone's. Look, if they added first class to F train, I'd mourn the loss of it's egalitarian charm, but damn if I ever voiced *that* as the major concern within the earshot of the worn out workers just trying to get from home to work and back as cheaply and quickly as possible. It wouldn't be their loss, only mine.

joeks (#5,805)

So weird. You can fly from A to B for $400. OK, now you can fly from A to B for $400, and also some suckers will sit in front of you and pay way more than $400 so they can get a glass of shitty champagne or whatever.

I like the "Working Class" thing though. That they recoiled so instinctually from the name says a lot. Still, it would have been a terrible idea to actually do it.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

Well yeah, I mean if there is one thing the working class really needs it's for the walthy people to mingle with them more. That egalitarianism thing, where the guy who can't afford a doctor's visit for his kid gets to finally live his dream and ride next to the guy who owns the hospital is the bomb. I'm telling you.

scrooge (#2,697)

Back in the day I used to fly LA – NY on MGM Grand, which was an All-First-Class airline. They had compartments like on the old trains, with two seats each side facing each other across a table. And a kind of lounge bar up front.

They closed up shop. Which makes me think that the First Class passengers really don't appreciate that they couldn't fly first class if it weren't for all those plebs back there paying the bulk of the cost. I see it as a kind of analogue of the whole economy, that all these rich jackasses don't realize they're only rich because of the poor masses.

spottedwren@twitter (#243,128)

I've flown a decent amount in my lifetime, and twice I was upgraded for no other reason than I was checking in early for a long flight (as far as I know.) When you are flying from Eastern Europe to the east coast of the US, being in first class makes a tremendous difference. I almost wish I didn't know what it was like, because I can't afford it on my own! The average person can get through six hours in coach easy, but when it starts getting up to ten or twelve…

Walt (#246,761)

"Or when you yourself are occupying a First or Business seat through luck or extravagance…"

Or you know, through hard work, talent, and determination, which is how most people end up affording first class.

This sounds like a letter from someone pissed off that Occupy crashed and burned so quickly and now can't find anything to do with her life.

You don't like first class? Fine. Don't worry about it. You'll never be successful enough to earn a seat there anyway. Now, leave the rest of us alone.

James Kunz@facebook (#246,788)

This is so bizarre to me that I wonder whether people who post such articles actually feel this way, or just want page views.

Jetblue is adding a first class cabin to a TINY minority of their flights and not diminishing legroom in their coach cabin, and you're upset?

If first class's existence bothers people, they can fly Southwest, Spirit, Allegiant OR Frontier. But I assume it doesn't, since the overwhelming majority of people just want the cheapest ticket, not to make a statement on class in America.

Oh, and I'm a schoolteacher, for crying out loud. I fly entirely for leisure purposes. I teach public school in Maryland. But I sit in premium cabins sometimes, either because I redeem some miles for international business class or because Delta upgraded me, even as a lowly Silver elite. Tell me, have I degraded myself?

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