Sunday read: Flying for the 1 percent

The United Airlines story couldn’t help but create a backlash. It wasn’t just United’s high-handed (and other-handed) treatment of the passenger who declined the airline’s offer to “re-accommodate”; it was all the things we dislike about airlines — the cramped planes, the seemingly capricious messages (we’ll pay you for your seat; no, actually, we’ll just have you randomly removed), the Hobson’s choice of scheduling — wrapped into one incident.

But not for everybody.

There are some people who are truly above it all. They have the benefit of flat-back seats, ample legroom and a nice drink to send them on their way. They are the 1 percent of flyers — first-class passengers all the way.

How the airlines accommodate them is the subject of today’s Sunday read.

Several years ago, New Yorker writer David Owen found himself in business class in a flight from Australia to California. He tried to act like he’d been there before, but he couldn’t hide his glee. So he set out to find how the other half — really, a sliver — lives. The trip took him to a London design studio that creates interiors for airplanes, making the trip seem less like a cattle car and more like those 1930s movies where people are being served elegant meals on china.

His article, which appeared almost exactly three years ago, is titled “Game of Thrones.”

Still, though the design material is fascinating, this one paragraph really resonated:

The first true business class arose soon afterward, and versions of it have evolved, since then, in response to the fluctuations of national economies, the increased competition that followed airline deregulation, and other factors. One key to its success is that many of the tickets are purchased with the world’s oldest virtual currency: Other People’s Money. For self-paying passengers who upgrade with frequent-flier miles, the cost is supported by things like the fees that retailers pay to credit-card companies, which buy miles in bulk from airlines and distribute them to cardholders as rewards; for corporate executives and their lawyers, bankers, and consultants, the expense is partly borne by shareholders, as is also the case with corporate jets.

That, of course, is the trick. If you don’t want to be treated like cattle, be at the other end of the prod — preferably with the benefit of Other People’s Money.

Meanwhile, I’m still wondering why United couldn’t pony up for a limo to get its crew from Chicago to Louisville. It almost certainly would have been more comfortable than the plane. Unless, of course, they were going to fly first class.


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