Like a lot of people this summer, I did some traveling by plane. At the airport, waiting in long lines for my row to be herded aboard, I realized something. There are few experiences in life as unequal as being an airline passenger.
In fact, the non-democracy begins before the flight even takes off, with first class passengers relaxing in elegant private airline lounges, the better to avoid any actual interaction with the commoners at the crowded gate who will be both literally and figuratively behind them.
And, after the announcement invites "first class passengers to board at their leisure," coach passengers stampede on, a pushing, shoving free-for-all. As they make their way back, in case anyone needs a reminder, coach passengers are forced on a walk of shame through the first class cabin, enduring the gaze of first class passengers sprawled in huge seats sipping pre-flight beverages.
I know all purchases, including air travel, have various options of price and service. I'm just not routinely confronted with such extreme differences so directly. I remember when coach was nice and first class was nicer. As anyone who has recently flown knows, first class is now more comfortable than ever -- some airlines feature private suites, flat beds, stand-up bars and even showers -- while, in the back, economy class has become shockingly stingy, passengers squished into tiny seats, airlines charging for everything from carry-on luggage to water. One airline even considered installing pay bathrooms. Rarely is such squalor separated by such splendor by one thin curtain.
We may be aboard a 21st century jet, but these days flying feels more like something out of Charles Dickens: "A tale of two tickets -- it was the best of flights, it was the worst of flights...." And, of course, this is commercial flying. The really affluent on private jets never have to share their oxygen with coach class.