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.

@mariabustillos Customers love our core product, and that’s not going away. We like to add to the options, not take them away.

— JetBlue Airways (@JetBlue) August 4, 2013


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

For me, equal seating IS core product, a real draw. MT @JetBlue: @mariabustillos Customers love our core product, & that’s not going away.

— Maria Bustillos (@mariabustillos) August 4, 2013

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.