Class Matters

I’m betraying my age by revealing this, but I’ve always loved the Saturday Night Live film from the early 80s where Eddie Murphy goes undercover as a white person. He discovers that being white confers even more advantages than he’d thought. A newsstand employee gives him a free paper because no one else is around. When the only other black guy gets off a public bus, suddenly the route becomes a rolling cocktail party. A bank manager hands Murphy $50,000 in cash and tells him he doesn’t have to pay it back. “Slowly,” Murphy says, “I began to realize that when white people are alone, they give things to each other for free.”

That’s how I felt when I started flying business class.

My entire adult life, I’d flown economy. Flying, to me, meant long lines, uncomfortable seats, indifferent service, erratic in-flight entertainment, and $6 bags of stale chips. If I wanted to change my reservations, with the exception of a couple of budget airlines, it cost me hundreds of dollars. I always traveled light, but when the carriers began to charge for bag fees, I started traveling with almost nothing. Flying was no more glamorous than the train trip to the airport. As far as I was concerned, there was no other way.

Then, thanks to an astonishing stroke of fortune, I got an assignment to go drive a Bentley convertible. In Croatia. That in itself was miraculous to me, as I never thought I’d visit Croatia in my life, much less drive a Bentley. But even more amazing was that they were flying me to Europe, via Delta, on International Business Class. Two months previous, I’d been forced to move from my home in Los Angeles to a not-as-nice home in Austin. I was living off my security deposit from the old house and found myself saddled with a considerable amount of credit-card debt, a lot of it from old economy-class airplane tickets that I hadn’t paid off yet. I was trapped forever in the 99 percent and had about as much of a chance of flying International Business Class as I did of skiing in the Olympics. Yet when my wife dropped me at the airport, a new world of travel opened. It was as though I’d woken up in the morning and suddenly had a complimentary personal butler. 

When you fly Business Class, if you want to check your bag, that’s fine, they won’t charge you. If you’re late for your flight, don’t worry about it, because there’s a “Premium” line that moves at ten times the speed of the regular one. If you have to interact with an airline employee, they say, “thank you for your business, sir.” All that happened within ten minutes of getting to the airport. I wanted to say, “I’m a fraud! Look at my scraggly beard and my Old Navy button-down! There are holes in my socks!” But they didn’t care. I held the golden ticket. The curtain had been pulled back, and they’d let me through.

On the plane, it was even better. The seats reclined into beds. There were menus, and complimentary French wines. You got blankets and earplugs and eye masks, and unlimited choices of movies, some of which were still in the theaters, to watch. The food wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad, and there were five courses of it, including a cheese course. They brought you drinks before takeoff, hot nuts soon after, and hot towels at regular intervals. For several hours, I was someone else, or at least an alternate-universe version of myself. Oh, sweet mysteries of life, at last I’d found them!

Since then, I’ve been flown to Europe on Delta six other times, all of them International Business Class. After the second, I reached Silver Medallion status. That’s because when you fly in the front of the plane, they give you double miles, and you don’t even have to ask for them. Two trips after that, I had my Gold Medallion, and last month, I got my Platinum status. Suddenly, I was getting automatic upgrades on all my domestic flights, and had a private line I could call if I needed to change my reservations or if I just wanted to chat with a friendly voice. This, I began to realize, is what it’s like to be, not necessarily white, but definitely rich. People just give things to each other for free.

The benefits to flying in First are infinite. Ground delays mean nothing if your chair reclines into a bed and you get unlimited snacks. But there are some detriments as well. In general, the people in economy are friendlier. I’ve met some nice folks up front, but I’ve also sat next to more than one millionaire next door who’s going to the continent to do some sort of “business”, but still thinks it’s OK to wear shorts and flip-flops. You’re on a work trip to Paris, buddy, I find myself thinking. Put on some decent shoes. Also, that bowling ball under your golf shirt isn’t getting any smaller. Maybe you should forgo the airplane beef just this once.

Another big difference: Unless you’re on your way to Vegas, people in economy are generally pretty sober, which is more than I can say for first class, which is an alcoholic’s wet dream. On the way to Spain, I sat next to a guy who drank eight vodka tonics and three glasses of wine before he finally threw back his head and began snoring like a cartoon dog. Another time, on a domestic upgrade, I bivouacked by someone who had three Bloody Marys before our 9 a.m. takeoff. I do occasionally take some wine with my dinner over the Atlantic, and I have a hard time saying “no” to the question “would you like some port?”, but I’m under the general impression that drinking while flying is extremely bad for your health. Just because you’re an international business traveler doesn’t mean you’re immune from severe heart disease.

I’ll never give up my Platinum status willingly. Please don’t take it away from me, seriously, or I will die. But I’m an impostor. Even though I fly high-end a lot now, I’m still very middle class, and not upper-middle, either. I can see that there’s something resolutely offensive about the extreme class divide that exists on airplanes. If the people in coach knew what it was really like up there, especially on international flights, they’d come at us with pitchforks.

The last couple of months, all my flights have been domestic, and I’ve been flying Southwest. My bags are still free to check, at least the first two, but so it is for the rest of the hoi polloi. I wait in line, jockey for seats, and generally fly without frills, though with seemingly endless bags of peanuts. There are a lot more little old ladies in the cabins, a lot more black people, a lot more college students, and a decent share of business travelers as well. You never know who your seat partner is going to be, which I think is better. In First Class, you almost always know what you’re going to get, within one or two standard deviations. Flying Southwest feels more democratic, more American, fairer somehow, more honest.

That said, it’d be nice if they’d offer me a glass of port once in a while. 


Neal Pollack is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, including, most recently, Jewball and Downward-Facing Death, currently running as a serialized novel as part of the Kindle Serials program. A contributor to many magazines and websites, he lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and son.

Categories: Airplanes, Airlines, Features, Trips

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