Commercial air travel as a capitalist analogy for life
It’s no secret to longtime readers that I fly frequently, both for work and for pleasure. So much that one might even say that I’m in part responsible keeping a certain airline profitable, as slim as its margins are. After nearly four years of traveling and flying, I have decided that airplanes, and air travel as a whole, are beautiful analogies for life.
A seat in the premium cabins on a commercial plane costs from two to ten times as much as an economy cabin seat, depending on the seat and the route. Consequently, they can be responsible for over half of the revenue from a flight operation, and more from a profitability standpoint, despite taking up only a quarter of the space on a aircraft. And if travel bloggers with affiliate links can be believed, they are worth every penny.
In the back sit the hoi polloi, with their limited legroom, packed to as many as ten in a row, contending with bodies of various sizes and behaviours, from the overgrown, armrest-conquering man-child to the underdeveloped, eardrum-piercing bundle of joy. An economy class passenger and their carry-on bags are soon parted, either checked by a keen gate agent or crammed far away into the last empty bin. If they manage to hold onto them, it’s at the cost of their long-suffering legs. If they’ve coughed up a small fortune to be able to choose their seats early, they have the choice between crawling over two other people to empty their bowels, or to have two other people crawl over them when they want to do the same. On shorter flights, they’re given a few carbs to munch on, and half a can of a beverage of their choosing. On longer ones, they have the pleasure of eating microwave dinners with plastic cutlery, oversalted to compensate for their dulled taste buds.
Slightly ahead of them are those sitting in preferred seats and the premium economy cabins. They’ve been allotted more legroom at a slight monetary cost, or a promise to help evacuate the aircraft in case of an emergency landing. Their meals might be served on plates and with metal cutlery, their seats might recline a bit more, and they might have to do a little less climbing to access the lavatories. But no matter how much they try to convince themselves otherwise, they’re not better then the ones sitting just behind them, and their seats aren’t much better either. Their meals are often the same, just plated differently. The so-coveted bulkhead seats often offer less aggregate legroom since legs can’t be fully extended. And their overhead compartments are filled with bags from the passengers traveling in the back.
Finally, there are the business and first-class passengers. Since I’m a plebeian who has never traveled in first class before, I’ve lumped the two together. Now, these are truly premium products. Standard are seats that extend flat, empty overhead compartments, meals that are edible, and a wide selection of alcoholic beverages. Some airlines will go a step further and offer a little doff bag with amenities, a set of pajamas with the airline logo, or even a ceramic windmill with liquor inside. Flight attendants are attentive, and no one needs to crawl over anyone to access the lavatory. Its other inhabitants are also tasteful and respectful, ensuring that everyone can get their work done, or their rest in. To say it’s the difference between a Toyota and a Bentley is an understatement; it’s more akin to the trunk versus the passenger seat.
And so these are the classes of society. One common configuration of a Boeing-777 has six percent of the plane sitting in the business cabins and the rest in the back. The intention is to mirror the wealth distribution of whatever populace the plane is operating, so they can fill all cabins with equal demand. There are the ninety percent, including those on social assistance, the working poor, the working class, the middle class, and the upper-middle class. The upper-classes have convinced themselves that they are different, that they are better, but their flight and life is really only an aesthetic improvement to all those flying and working beneath them. Then you have the rich, who pay exorbitant amounts for an improved experience, because they have nothing better to spend their money on.
From an ultra-capitalist lens, there’s also the Randian idea that those sitting in the front are there because they are key contributors to society. The politics of that thinking aside, those sitting in the front are certainly subsidizing the fares of those sitting in the back: a seat in the front takes up as much space as four seats in the back, but sells for ten times the price. Airline economics dictates that by extracting as much value from everyone as possible, air travel becomes accessible to all. The analogy is just an analogy: the lower echelons of society have better things to spend money on than airfare, and many of the people sitting up front didn’t buy their own tickets, but as a general rule it holds.
The reason for the significant effort in product improvement from coach to business is because airlines know that they can try to differentiate the spaces and product specifications in a narrow metal tube, but the fundamental service they provide is inherently the same, regardless of cabin. Everyone starts in the same place, and ends in the same place. If there is a weather issue, a ground delay program, or mandatory deicing, everyone is equally afflicted. Sure, the journey is more comfortable for those in the front, for those who enjoy expedited security and lounge access, but everyone arrives at the same time. Of course, the ultra-ultra rich also deserve some recognition. Those flying private are subject to fewer restrictions than those flying commercial, and even more amenities. But, the service is still the same, a trip to a different destination. At the risk of sounding morbid, that’s life as well. Everyone starts off being born and ends up being dead; it’s what you do in between that really counts.
One of my favourite flights in recent memory was sitting in the back of a leisure carrier: that’s no inflight entertainment system, no wi-fi, and very small seats. It was a five-hour daytime flight from Toronto to Barbados, and I was just going for the weekend. I didn’t get any sleep or food, and was trapped in a middle seat. Despite this, the flight was enjoyable. The flight attendants were all young and happy, likely looking forward to their two-day layover. One of them offered me hairspray when my hair was a little droopy. The passengers were all smiles, hoping for a tan and some island hospitality. One of them shared the box of cookies he had brought on board with me. There were no frowning businesspeople, no haughty flight attendants, and importantly, no delays. When we arrived, we got off the plane no more than five minutes after the people sitting in the front. I found myself wondering if they had as pleasant of a flight as I did.
So enjoy your flight, regardless of where you’re sitting. If your seat offers a bit more legroom, revel in it. If the flight attendant gives you a whole can of pop, enjoy it. If you happen to have an empty row, lie down in it. However, air travel is really about the destination, not the journey, even in the premium cabins. But if you only have one flight, and that flight happens to be about the journey, perhaps you ought to make the most of it, regardless where you’re sitting. Don’t worry too hard about moving up to the next cabin. Catch a few extra winks of sleep and beg the flight attendant for extra goodies. After all, it’ll be over before you know it.