A century on from its invention, air travel remains one of our greatest abilities. Flight grants mobility to that least mobile class of capitalism’s three, labor. By allowing us all to span continents it reduces our tendency to stereotype and dismiss those we have never seen. By encouraging quick visits home for holidays it enables family ties to stretch and thus daughters and sons to move further than they ever have. And, hundreds of years on, the magic of descending into Hong Kong as the dawn rises will still impress.
Yet air travel also reflects the stratification of society, the belief that not all people are created equal, and the separation of humans from one another. Waiting in LAX a few months ago a family seated near me was preparing their children for their first flight, reassuring the youngest and explaining which plane was likely theirs to the eldest. From the sound of it they were headed on vacation, to a new adventure.
Like many I can’t remember my first flight. I can guess, to Sacramento in the eighties, to see my grandparents. My parents might remember, such travel was rare enough then, planned for months and each trip separated from the next by a year or two. US Air, probably, one of the pre-bankruptcy incarnations. Definitely a layover, between Ithaca and Sacramento, possibly two. An easier security check though, fewer hassles than this family in LAX has had to endure. Especially at a small airport like Ithaca, like the old Ithaca, where there was only one gate and passengers mingled with those waiting for arrivals. It was no $16 flight up the west coast that Joan Didion remembers, but it was a simpler time.
And that brings me to LAX, to SFO, to HKG and JFK, and status clubs and priority boarding. That brings me to the striation of humanity inside one of the great engines of democratization. No longer is moving from California to New York a rare occurrence. Students from China can go to school in Boston and see their families on holidays. Cousins from Australia can visit upstate NY for the summer. And a boy from Ithaca can meet a girl from Colorado in Shanghai and move to Houston together.
Air travel is a great enabler. Along with the internet it has changed how fast, how often, and for what reasons we communicate, visit, and learn from each other. It is also, especially compared to the internet, an incredibly resource-intensive idea, burning fuel dug out of the ground to cross and re-cross the planet. Considered that way the idea of bachelor parties in Croatia and weekend trips to LA sound foolish, a waste of a shared resource for fleeting enjoyment. And yet what a glorious ability, to weekend elsewhere, to visit spontaneously for scant dollars.
This is the problem, of course. The democratization of air travel comes with a cost, and that cost is covered in a large part by the segregation of fliers, by the thousand dollar price difference between a seat in business class and economy on the same plane, leaving and departing at the same times from the same locations.
What is different then about those seats? How we treat each other. More money earns a nicer experience, free drinks, a courteous smile upon boarding, a newspaper. Most importantly more money earns a larger seat, more personal space.
These inventions should not surprise, and they don’t. Of course more money will buy a nicer version of something, whatever the thing may be. Of course those with are treated more preferentially than those without. That is the very basis of human economics, for better and worse, for thousands of years.
What is changing, what has changed, is the view from the bottom. Not only are those who pay more treated better, but that those who pay less are now treated slightly worse. Premium tickets bring additional benefits and economy tickets bring less and less. From paying for food to paying for legroom (Jet Blue, United, Virgin) to paying for TV (Frontier) to paying for boarding (Southwest, United, Virgin) there is no longer a sense of service with the ticket purchase. Overhead compartments have become a war zone due to checked fees and frequent travelers spend actual minutes of life learning the amount of bin space on different aircraft. The additional transactions, costs, and restrictions create small burdens on each of us until the very heart of flying, the joy of being airborne, has been whittled down. Until the child preparing for his first flight is cautioned with a thousand guidelines rather than encouraged in his excitement.
In short what was once a gift, a miraculous journey from New York to California, has been turned into a series of chores and of inconveniences. I do not say “has become a series of chores” because that removes the reason for these changes and the responsibility for our worsening experiences. Checked bag fees did not come from the sky, but from the boardroom. Treating each economy customer slightly worse was not an accident but a calculated move. Adding on a few fees after ticket purchase, making travel worse in these small ways, one at a time, was a way to maximize profits at the expense of someone else.
Is a way.
That is why I was excited about Virgin America, and about Jet Blue and Southwest before that. About an airline that claimed to believe what we all know: good service and decent treatment should be the baseline, not an added fee. A reasonable seat, a clean plane, something to drink. This kind of company should be encouraged, should be recognized and aided. How much better must it be to work for a company that treats customers the way we would like to be treated? How much better is it to be proud of our employers, to be customers of our own products, willing passengers on our own airlines and happy diners in our own restaurants?
Treating each other better needs no limits. Airports could easily return to being enjoyable places, with less focus on security and fewer collisions between rollaboards. With faster checked luggage recovery, without so many fees, with only a little bit of better treatment, passengers could once again stroll through the airport rather than drag their possessions into cramped bathrooms and newspaper stands.
These ideas are not unachievable miracles, they are not irrational requests. They are simply how things used to work, and how they still could. These ideas are built on a belief that we can all treat each other better. And that how we treat each other in our jobs, in our companies, is how we treat each other. Hiding behind corporate declarations and revenue targets does not reduce our responsibility to each other. By making the collective experience of humans slightly worse we are worsening our own lives, no matter our income or status. In this specific case we are gradually reducing the pleasure of one of our most miraculous technologies.
By making air travel worse it is less likely that a boy and a girl will grow up to love airplanes. Less likely that they will love staring down at the world from above and up at the sky from below, less likely that they will travel so freely and with such joy. This vision is a sad one.
The alternative is simple. We can treat each other better. We can build companies that do likewise. And instead of bin space we can focus on the wonder of air travel. We can help each other and support those who treat us better and those whose jobs are built on the idea.
And we can teach new fliers like that child in LAX the magic in my favorite phrase, a sentence that with every repetition excites me and suggests the future.
“We will be on the ground shortly.”