My Fight with First Class


On my flight from Seattle to Los Angeles last night, it occurred to me that commercial airplanes are near-perfect archetypes of classism.  In fact, airlines proudly trumpet such division… First Class in front, Economy Class in the rear. 

And why should that come as a surprise when we all know that those with less always wind up taking it in the rear.

As I dragged my banged-up bags and my trip-worn legs through the forward cabin, I did my absolute best to avoid grazing silky shoulders, knees and elbows of well-heeled titans in their plush leather seats.  A few such moneyed men and women peered up to meet the tired eyes of the temporary loiterers who made their way through hallowed ground.  It’s almost as if I could see the words streaming across their pupils as they watched our weathered herd… “Glad I’m not those guys.”

For Economy Class commoners, airfare and service costs continue to rise.  Customer support continues to fall.

For First and Business Class nobility, prices remain far enough out of reach so that only the best get only the best.

We the Economy Class pay for bags.  We pay for food.  We pay for movies and for earphones.  We pay extra for seats toward the front of the airplane.  Pretty soon we’ll have to pay a buck for a pee and two for a poop.  Then they’ll install a little coin-op arcade machine with the claw near the restroom so as the plane goes down you can take a shot at winning a combo floaty device and air mask.

First and Business Class folks pay twice the amount of an Economy Class ticket.  Therefore, they get through security, check-in and boarding ahead of less fortunate souls.  And while waiting for a flight, they have exclusive lounge access, because mingling with those less fortunate souls is too ordinary.  They get 25 percent more legroom and almost 20 percent more seat recline than Economy Class, because we require reminders that it’s never quite comfortable enough being a commoner.  A steady flow of preflight and inflight premium food and booze is standard fare.  And upon landing, fancy car service coordination is followed by escorts to baggage claim, luggage retrieval, and escorts to said fancy car services.  

American Airlines First & Business class passengers receive three free checked bags, each weighing up to 70 pounds.  That means that Jack or Jill Wealthy can pack their fancy clothes along with 8 of their favorite 400oz Good Delivery (gold) bars into their silver-plated suitcases.  American Economy Class plebes pay $25 for their first bag, $35 for their next.  Fees for a family of four are tantamount to a First Class bottle of bubbly.  Incidentally, baggage and change fees have increased by more than 400 percent over the previous decade.  And congratulations to American Airlines for being the baggage fee champ last year with more than $1 billion in profits.  You really do represent American values.

We must not forget, however, that flying is a privilege, no matter what row one occupies.  The average round-trip domestic flight is well over $500.  Two grand for the average family is a punch to the gut, or a bit lower.  If over 80 percent of income is allocated for basic living expenses, getaways to the Grand Canyon or to Disneyland are a stretch for most.  And, since nearly 70 percent of Americans have less than a grand in savings, hanging with Mickey Mouse is, well, daffy.

Forget air travel.  How many fat-cat-big-shot-moneybags ride the bus, take a train, or hoof it?   Clearly, such options are largely relegated to the Economy Class.  Why?  Because fat-cat-big-shot-moneybags make wage determinations, and those determinations are that they deserve far more zeros on their paychecks than everyone else, which ultimately forces the Economy Class into a limited spectrum of lifestyle options.  So, a cushy limo service or a private chopper or a $75,000 luxury automobile are at their ready, while an $18,000 Honda Civic or a bus seat with a wad of Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum stuck underneath are availed to the less worthy.

And why have commutes become considerably longer for the Economy Class?  Because, the number of Economy Class jobs within a typical radius has plummeted.  Census data shows that the rate of workers with extreme commutes – 90 minutes or more – grew the fastest while the same rate for workers with the shortest commutes shriveled.  Once again, why is this?  Because our beloved First Class makes the rules, and those rules mean fewer jobs for America’s Economy Class, fewer livable wage opportunities, and a hearty fuck you if you don’t like it. 

The Brookings Institute unearthed a “massive body of social science and public health research on the negative effects of commuting on personal and societal well-being.  Longer commutes are linked with increased rates of obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, back pain and neck pain, divorce, depression and death.  As long as the Economy Class is sick and stuck, the First Class can keep on keepin’ on.

I have had the great honor of working for a number of nonprofit organizations.  Yet, the inherent nonprofit paradigm is so inverted, so staggeringly perverse.  Though our economy is primarily operated by the Economy Class, it is outright owned by the First Class.  That same First Class muzzles opportunity and parity which, in turn, cause and sustain fiscal sickness, emotional sickness, and physical sickness among the Economy Class.  Nonprofits exist to serve their fiscally, emotionally, and physically sick brethren.  These same nonprofits, however, assemble boards, primarily comprised of First Class citizens, to tap their First Class compatriots to contribute to the very folks that they have otherwise afflicted in the first place.

Oh my oh my. Why are we fixated on rescues instead of reasons?  On consequences instead of causes?  On style instead of substance? On first instead of second?

Doug ForbesComment