Airplane travel has been much in the news of late: planes grounded for inspection, soaring fares, fewer and fuller flights, airlines going belly-up, airlines proposing marriage to one other, passengers paying for their peanuts. All this produces the usual grousing from the flying “public” and the usual cries for more regulation. Well, if it’s hard to fill the Hummer with gas at $3.50 a gallon, what do we expect the airlines to do? And which should we prefer—grounded planes, or planes hurtling to the ground? As Don Corleone might say: women and children can be careless, but not airlines.
A November story in the New York Times described the ever-increasing horror and oppression of airline travel in America. An accompanying illustration showed a flight attendant offering a choice of hay or straw to the bovine coach passengers squeezed into the airline equivalent of the trucks that send cattle to their doom. The story itself emphasized the difference between the suffering in coach and the glam and ease of first class. The author—bound as she was by the “ethics” of the journalist’s profession—did note that, according to United, the 8 percent of its passengers who pay to fly first and business class account for 36 percent of its passenger revenues.
Note the language: passengers who pay to fly first class. I fly a lot, and thus spend a lot of time in first class—thanks not to my wallet, but rather to the many miles I’ve logged, which have made me an “elite” flyer, rewarded with free first-class upgrades whenever a seat is available. On my domestic hauls, especially the shorter ones, it seems as though most people in first class haven’t paid a dime for the bigger seats, four-inch bananas, kettle chips, and (the real goodie) free liquor. Perhaps it’s the first-class tickets on overseas flights that subsidize all the bottom-line freight. Those tickets do cost an arm and a leg, and they’re not available as freebies to frequent flyers.
But who can feel sorry for a coach-enslaved passenger on the way to Honolulu for a lark or London for study abroad? As for domestic passengers, the cost of most of their flights is a fairly small multiple of what a Times writer would pay for his quotidian cab ride from home to Midtown. Any inconvenience of air travel is now far outweighed by its incredibly cheap cost. More: flying in America is the safest and most reliable means of travel in human history.
In 1956, when I was 12 years old, I took my first airplane journey, on a Lockheed Constellation—the four-motor propeller marvel that looked like a bent cigar and had a funny tail. How elegant was the whole affair! The ladies were dressed up in fancy suits and high-heeled shoes; same for the gents, except for the shoes, and the whole experience felt like tea at Harrods. I have no idea what the ticket cost—my parents were well off, so it never occurred to me to wonder—but it must have been a lot. Back then, only rich people traveled by air.
Then, in 1963, I took a Greyhound bus from San Francisco to New York. Though it was the cheapest way to get from coast to coast, the fare was about a hundred bucks; adjusted for inflation, that would be nearly $700 today, one-way. I’ll never forget that trip—my nose won’t let me. It took weeks for my clothes to give up the reek of intestinal flatus that suffused the atmosphere of the coach. The whores who plied their trade from stop to stop smelled like goats. And from the winos, sitting in the back with their brown bags of Ripple, came long, deep, rumbling burps that reminded you of rotting vegetables. The food—you had to buy your own in the dumps the bus stopped at—had all been fried in grease that came in hard blocks in boxes labeled HAZMAT. The trek took almost three days, and it was hard to get more than a couple of hours of sleep at night. So if you think flying is so tough, try taking a bus instead: though they’re much nicer nowadays, they still take a long time to get you where you want to go.
And what the Times writer doesn’t know is that the real hardships are borne by all those poodles in the front cabin. Many suffer status anxiety before every flight, wondering if they’ll get the upgrade and so be able to look up from their drinks as the common herd boards. That’s why, I’ll bet, there’s more bad behavior in first class than in the back. I recall a story some years ago of a high-powered executive who, when denied his tenth whiskey, jumped up on the serving cart, dropped his pants, and deposited his last night’s dinner. The flight attendants refused to clean it up (not their job), and so the other poodles had to pretend not to notice.
About a year ago, our flight to Chicago was late, and my wife and I, among others, had connections we’d have to run to catch. When the attendant asked passengers to let those with connections out first, an oafish character started carrying on about how he was in first class and wasn’t going to wait for anybody. When the door opened, the sod rushed in front of everyone, got his stuff, and then walked down the ramp as slowly as he could. I eased him aside with my elbow—as hard as I could—and we made our connection.
Recently, on my commute from Washington, D.C. to Detroit, a suit and tie was really agitated about whether he’d get his spot in first class—mumbling and carrying on even as he took the seat. About halfway to Detroit, a pilot came out to get one of the four-inch bananas. When he returned to the cockpit, the suit and tie went close to bonkers: “Why does the pilot come out on just an hour-long flight? Who’s flying this plane? This can’t be according to protocol!” The kindly flight attendant first tried to reason with him, and eventually had to tell him that she simply wouldn’t talk to him any more. I noticed the other flight attendants looking through their manual, no doubt to see when it’s proper to ask passengers to hog-tie a misbehaving jackass.
At a conference I attended not long ago, a learned and sweet academic friend confessed to me that he’d only once in his life flown first class. He and his wife had run through a large airport to make a connection after a long and grueling flight. The gate agent for the connecting flight, seeing their exhaustion, upgraded them to first class. During the flight, a woman from coach, young child in tow, asked the first-class flight attendant if she could use the forward lavatory—there was a long line in the back, and the kid really had to go. The attendant, breaking the rule, said yes. When my academic friend got home, he shamefacedly admitted to his wife that he had resented the intrusion of this creature from coach. To his surprise, she replied that she’d had exactly the same reaction. First class just makes people—even very nice people—crazy.
So the next time you feel hot, sweaty flesh pushing you into the window, just think of how it would be for three days rather than for an hour and a half. And the next time you’re tempted to join the crybabies who see flying as class warfare, just think about all that angst in the front cabin.