Airline Inequality: A Social Microcosm of Class

When you think of situations in which class is highly visible, the chances are that the example of air travel will not immediately come to mind. Yet this is one of the most relevant environments where we can see the mechanisms of inequality come into play.

“… the modern airplane is a social microcosm of class-based society… the increasing incidence of ‘air rage’ can be understood through the lens of inequality.”
DeCelles and Norton (2016)

When you buy airplane tickets, you have the option to select from a range of different classes. Depending on your chosen airline, these can include economy, premium economy, business or first class. The higher the class, the more your travel experience will be improved. Advantages of upper classes include: more spacious seating areas, gourmet dining, a queue-skipping feature worthy enough to rival Disneyland and much more. The appeal of these factors is only magnified when you consider the cramped, claustrophobic and dingy environment economy passengers must endure for up to eighteen hours at a time.

However – as may seem ludicrously obvious – these upper classes come with a hefty price tag. Even to upgrade from economy to premium economy – a section still far removed from first class – can be at least double the price. I learnt this when I flew premium economy on Cathay Pacific from New Zealand to Spain. Considering the already sky-high (pun intended) prices of airplane tickets, this is no trivial fact.

Air rage is a common byproduct of this visibility of class. A study by DeCelles and Norton support how maddening it is to board a long-haul flight knowing your seat is located right at the back, and that you must sidle your way past the ‘prioritised’ classes to get there. I always find myself gazing longingly at the luxurious fold-out beds and passengers sipping on complementary cocktails, yearning for a spontaneous and unannounced upgrade. The researchers reported how – on a psychological scale – this air rage is the equivalent to a nine and a half hour flight delay. If that isn’t shocking enough, then you might be surprised to learn that this anger is in fact greater in first class passengers who are burdened with those from economy invading their exclusive, personal space (if you are curious regarding my opinion on that matter, you just have to pay attention to my tone).

“… it’s not often you see such a clear visual representation of our collective acceptance of the right of a small fraction of people to consume a very disproportionate percentage of resources”
Elizabeth Berman

The price tag is exactly what prevents a majority of people from the opportunity to upgrade from the discomfort of economy class. I expect most would argue that if you pay for something, then you are entitled to receive it; but the point is that it’s not a fair playing ground to begin with. The income gap is only increasing, and airline stratification systems reflect this. I am no economics expert (I smell maths), so you do not need to worry about me launching into a lecture on societal inequality. But this article framed it in a simple way when it said, “(this) ‘calculated misery’… involves degrading basic service to a level so low that non-masochistic passengers will pay up to avoid the pain. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to pay these ancillary fees. Those who can’t or won’t fork over more are made to suffer for it”.

Given the consequences of this classist visibility on airplanes, I believe that airlines should be taking measures to try and improve the system. Of course, this outcome would only come to fruition in an ideal world – and unfortunately, we live in the real world, where companies are driven by profit and not morals. Therefore, in light of the fact that I’m not about to change the world anytime soon, I hope this post has at the very least educated you on an issue that all travellers have encountered (whether they realise it or not).

The next time you take to the skies – whichever cabin you are seated in – take a moment or two to reflect on the stark difference of quality between economy and the upper classes. Take a moment or two to reflect on the justness of the situation, and – considering the psychological and physical repercussions – ask yourself whether you think it’s really worth it.

While you’re here, be sure to check out my experience flying premium economy with Cathay Pacific, and my guide to surviving long-haul flights… if you’re in economy class, you’re going to need it ✈

All photographs courtesy of Unsplash

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