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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Flying Premium Economy with Cathay Pacific… Worth It?

If you’re anything like me and regard flying with a special abhorrence, then there’s a decent chance you have considered paying that little bit extra to buy a ticket in either Premium Economy or Business Class to try and make the long haul just that little bit more bearable.

I’m kidding. It’s not a ‘little bit extra’. On average, upgrading from Economy to Premium Economy costs at least an additional NZD$1500. Do you know what you could buy with that? Another Economy ticket.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to fly Premium Economy from New Zealand to Spain with Cathay Pacific. I wasn’t looking forward to the thirty hour journey in the slightest, but knowing I didn’t have to budget for a return ticket — and considerable family generosity — motivated me to splurge on a deal I had found.

Photograph courtesy of Cathay Pacific

After making my way to New Zealand’s largest international airport, my trip saw me flying from Auckland to Hong Kong, and then Hong Kong to Madrid. Both of these were long-haul flights, and to say I was mildly excited would have been a severe exaggeration. Nevertheless, I was curious to see what forking out for a Premium Economy ticket would add to the travel experience.

For the flight to Hong Kong, I was seated front right in the Premium Economy cabin. For those unacquainted with the layout of airplanes, this meant that I was next to the window with nobody in front of me. This last piece of information is vital; being at the foremost part of the cabin ensured that I had all the legroom I could ever want. The journey felt spacious and light, and I emerged from those first twelve hours feeling optimistic from such luxury, and giddy from the complimentary champagne I had indulged in over the course of the flight. Premium Economy had certainly ticked the box for me.

However, the fight to Madrid did not run as smoothly. A series of unfortunate events foreshadowed the success of the following journey: the flight was delayed due to a busy runway, the plane had to return to the terminal due to a passenger experiencing a medical emergency, and an air hostess refused to give me water during take off despite my choking on a sleeping pill (🖕). None of these had anything to do with being in Premium Economy per se (nor were they all the fault of the airline), but they still didn’t make for an ideal start.

Photograph courtesy of Traveller

Once we were finally in the air, I adjusted to my new quarters. Unlike the last flight, I was now positioned smack bang in the middle of the Premium Economy cabin with passengers in front, behind and to the sides of me. Whilst the dimensions for Premium Economy are somewhat more generous than Economy, I wouldn’t exactly say they’re worth the extra thousands. As someone quite tall, I still experienced the cramped claustrophobia from severe lack of legroom.

I also wasn’t expecting the sheer quantity of children in these upgraded classes. I estimated that roughly 60% of those flying in Premium Economy and Business Class were under the age of ten. I don’t note this because they impacted on my experience at all – they were really well-behaved and I was impressed by their self-control over the hours – but I was nonetheless taken aback by how much it must have cost to pay such money for passengers who likely wouldn’t have appreciated the advantages of Premium or Business class. (If you’re interested in the controversy of whether young children should be admitted to these cabins, you might like to read this arguably contentious debate. I’d be eager to hear your thoughts.)

Photograph courtesy of Cathay Pacific

There was one incident that particularly stuck out for me during the flight from Hong Kong to Madrid. Around three quarters of the way in, I was seized by a sudden need to go to the bathroom. I had been asleep for most of the previous journey, and had not emptied my bladder since arriving in Hong Kong Airport. Disorientated from the sleeping pills, I staggered to my feet and stumbled towards the Premium Economy toilets, only to discover that they were out of order. Great.

Busting, I made towards the Economy cubicles at the very back of the plane. It didn’t take very long for me to realise that a line of probably eight to ten people had formed a queue per loo. Furthermore, the breakfast trolleys were right behind them and lethargically making their way up the plane at a snail’s pace. I worked out that it would take probably forty-five minutes for the trolley to pass before I could even join the queue. Exasperated, I marched to the front of the plane and asked if I could please use the Business Class toilets seeing as they were the only feasible option left.

The Cathay Pacific air hostess physically blocked my path. I communicated that I was in a lot of discomfort and would likely wet myself if I didn’t pee soon, but she just flashed her teeth and explained in a patronising manner that those toilets were reserved for Business Class only. Infuriated, I recounted how the Premium Economy toilets were not functioning and that I couldn’t access the Economy toilets until a) the breakfast trolley had crawled its way up the plane and b) the enormous queue had died down. I also pointed out that there was both Business Class toilets were unoccupied and that a majority of the passengers were fast asleep. The air hostess just motioned aggressively for me to leave the cabin. Fuming, I retreated to the very back of the plane to stand in burning pain for first the breakfast trolley to pass, and then to queue for the cubicles.

I waited over an hour.

Photograph courtesy of South China Morning Post

That was pretty shitty service, Cathay Pacific. I understand that if you pay more for a Premium Economy ticket, then you should be entitled to more privileges than those in Economy. Likewise, I understand that if you pay more for a Business class ticket, then you should be entitled to more privileges than those in Premium Economy. But those standards should only apply when basic services are functioning normally. When the Premium Economy toilets failed, those passengers should have been permitted use of the Business Class facilities when Economy wasn’t readily available, not penalised for something that wasn’t their fault. If the Economy toilets had also broken down, would the airline have made everybody who wasn’t in Business Class wait for the entirety of the long-haul flight before landing in Madrid to access a bathroom? I was rightly pissed at the rules — and the apathy of the air hostess at my physical discomfort — and that incident unfortunately tainted my experience for that second flight.

It would be wrong to deny there aren’t any perks to flying Premium Economy with Cathay Pacific. You have the chance to board first, you have a greater luggage allowance, you receive a complimentary amenity kit and your cabin has its own bathroom (hahahaha). Plus, the vegetarian meals I received extended beyond mere vegetables (I’m looking at you, Singapore Airlines). But all it takes is one negative episode to contaminate the whole experience.

Photograph courtesy of Cathay Pacific

So… was it worth it?

Yes and no.

I know, I know. That’s not the answer you just trudged through this entire article to read. But I experienced two very different flights in Premium Economy, and thus experienced two very different reactions.

If I had the money, I would very happily cough up the extra to fly Premium Economy with Cathay Pacific again if I could ensure I had a front row seat. As I wrote above during my flight from Auckland to Hong Kong, that seat made a world of difference.

However, if I knew in advance that I would be situated in the middle of the cabin, then perhaps I might have wanted to rethink that ticket. Sure, there are perks to flying Premium, but they’re not worth the extra thousands.

At the end of the day, the time is going to pass anyway. Whether you’re in Economy class or Premium Economy class, it’s twelve hours of your life that will eventually be over whether or not you’re sipping champagne.

Photograph courtesy of Cathay Pacific

P.S. I have only ever flown Premium Economy with Cathay Pacific. This review applies only to that airline. Perhaps the Premium Economy experience contrasts with other airlines. I’ve heard Air New Zealand is well worth the money… am I biased? Probably.

Writing this article got me thinking about how airline seating reflects class inequality. Something tells me I’ll be writing an article on that in the near future.

Furthermore, if you have a trip on the horizon, check out my No-Bullsh*t Guide to Surviving a 12-Hour Flight! Or if you want to read more of my uninvited opinions, maybe Why I Hate the Word ‘Wanderlust’ will be your cup of tea.

 

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