Archived Story

Class differences are notable in air travel

Published 9:37am Friday, June 21, 2013

Column: Notes From Home, by David Behling

The line to check my luggage for the flight home stretches as far as the eye can see … or at least that’s how it feels. In reality, the line has less than 100 people in it and is moving fairly steadily. When I think about how many people are in the airport or this city or on our planet, not that many. And not that much extra time, even if standing-in-line time almost always feels boring.

It was not a pleasure trip, which probably enhanced the tedious unpleasantness of the experience. When I am excited about going somewhere interesting for vacation, the lines feel part of the grand adventure (even if still boring).

Business travel is paid for by somebody else, but it’s required. It means laptops and portfolios stuffed with paperwork. It means email correspondence via my mobile.

So far this year I have taken three business trips. One of them involved the train (see Notes from Home, April 12), which made it the most pleasant. Traveling hardly felt like a business trip at all.

The other two meant flying. Two round trips to and through airports. The one back in March meant changing planes, in Dallas and Atlanta, but neither set of flights were especially fun or interesting.

There’s a YouTube clip with a comedian mocking those who complain about flying. His description of the whiners and complainers is hilarious. Makes me laugh every time I watch it. That comedian is absolutely correct; we do get so caught up in inconveniences that we tend to forget the amazing parts of air travel.

The thing is, the amazing parts of air travel are getting harder to see. There’s all those airline fees and uncomfortable seating arrangements. There’s all that security, with TSA personnel treating all of us as if we were potential terrorists.

Shuffling forward in line, like some kind of well-dressed chain gang, watched by TSA agents, we quietly take off shoes and belts and empty our pockets of everything, including handkerchiefs and packages of gum. Heaven forbid we didn’t drink the last inch of water in our water bottles or forgot that bottle of hand lotion!

In all of my trips to and through airports this year, one thing I’ve had a chance to observe up close is the class system in this country. Oh, I know nobody is supposed to acknowledge class differences in America. But they exist all the same, clearly visible at the airport.

The ticket counter provides a separate line with no waiting for first-class passengers. Security involves only a short trip, with first-class travelers allowed to go right to the head of the line (though even they also get treated like potential terrorists).

And then those travelers disappear into special lounges, where they relax in luxury while waiting for their flights. They get to board first, and while the rest of us drag our bags up the narrow aisles and fight for room to breathe at the back of plane, they sit and sip chilled beverages, with plenty of legroom and space between each passenger as they sit in leather recliners. I know this because on my last flight I paid to upgrade, and reveled in the room to move and breathe.

I am not a socialist. I do not believe that the rich need to be punished for their economic success, brought down to the level of the rest of us through taxation or confiscation. I’m not even a Democrat, who aren’t socialists either, but still believe that the upper classes are a threat to American society.

But to deny that money and class functions in significant ways in our society? That’s wrong. To pretend that having lots of money doesn’t provide a family a major boost over the rest of us when it comes to developing potential in themselves or in their children? That’s the worst kind of propaganda.

Maybe if the experience at the airport wasn’t so demeaning, I wouldn’t be as quick to notice how money buys more than just stuff. Maybe I could relax, admire the success of the upper-class travelers and appreciate the amazing ability of air travel to tie our world together if I wasn’t one of three people wedged into a space meant for two.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.