Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Airborne Aristocracy

My wife and I just returned from a whirlwind Holiday tour of the midwest, with all the trimmings: four flights; hours spent lugging bags across barren terminals; standby list frustration; covertly lugging a small dog, disguised as a typical carry-on bag in order to avoid an extortionate $80-one-way pet fee.

Despite all these customary frustrations (the dog problem may not be customary, I concede), the most striking part of my journey was how air travel has become a haven of class-based segregation and discrimination. Remember these rules of the good old days?

- Board from the back of the plane forward, so that everyone can get on efficiently and quickly.

- If you need to fly standby, get on the list quickly, because the first person on the standby list is the first person to get a spare seat.

- You are entitled to some nutritional sustenance, be it a bagel or sandwich or bag of snack mix.

These rules have gone the way of the dodo. Now:

- Boarding occurs according to a cryptic "zone" system. Everyone is assigned a boarding "zone" number, which seems to bear no relation whatever to their seating locations. Instead, it is based on a secret proprietary algorithm that predicts the likelihood that a given passenger is someone the airline needs to please in order to achieve profitability. You're not an ultra-frequent flyer who paid full fare? Forget it. You'll be chasing down the plane as it pushes off from the gate. By the time you get on, the overhead bins will be full of the gold and silver baubles purchased by the rich. If, however, you're a 100,000-mile platinum elite premiere extra-special fat boy club member, you'll get to board at the same time as the bloody mary mix. The overhead bins will be vast, empty expanses, so you can assign a separate compartment to each of your diamond-encrusted cufflinks and your cashmere dickey.

- The standby list, too, has been taken over by a belligerent computer. An airline worker confessed to me that the order of priority on the list has nothing to do with the order of signing up. Rather, a faceless software program crunches numbers on a server located at NSA headquarters, again attempting to predict the profit potential of each person on the list. During our holiday travel, we failed to get seats on a flight for the specific reason that, even though we were chronologically the first and second people on the list, Hal 9000 decided that we would not assist the airline in emerging from the protection of the bankruptcy court.

- And then there's food. This is not news to anyone who's flown in the last 10 years. But the situation has become really dire lately. Now, even a small bag of pretzels or snack mix is not always in the offing -- usually due to the "short duration of the flight," according to the flight attendants. I guess Parkinson's is really on the rise among flight crew members, since they used to be able to pull off the amazing feat of tossing a half-ounce bag of crap to each passenger without delaying the flight. The other recent development in airborne culinary science is the five-dollar meal. Some airlines will give you food -- if you pay. I paid once, and what I got was a cardboard box full of promotional samples that the airline surely got for free, and a piece of cheese and jelly-covered ham encapsulated between slabs of dry bread that spent their best days deep in the bowels of a cold, dark closet. The pricks in first or business class, of course, still get a gourmet meal. The food franchise is thus even more restricted now than when airborne meals first started disappearing.

Howard Hughes, expending some of his limited pool of lucidity, recognized that the success of air travel depended on making it attractive and available to the general public. (Yes, I just saw the Aviator.) And the airlines did a yeoman's job of it for a while. But I sense regression. I sense a resistance to the populist policies and trends that enable the unwashed masses to join together in high-altitude harmony. I see the airlines rescinding universal privileges in favor of carefully dispensed favors, calculated to deter low-margin travelers in favor of businessmen with hundred-dollar bills dripping down their pant legs.

The work-a-day Joe, who patrols Orbitz and Priceline for travel deals, is now a second-class citizen as soon as he crosses the threshold of the security perimeter. An airborne aristocracy is taking over. How long before the discount-fare economy passengers have to pay their way by catering to those who get the extra legroom, brining them Harvey Wallbangers and foie gras? How long before the coach section becomes a climate-uncontrolled cargo hold, with passengers affixed by canvas straps to cold steel walls?

Not long, I think. My advice is to save up for a nice car.


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