Flying a budget airline will wake you up to almost every myth about modern middle class life.
(I wrote this post in parts and pieces on my phone during a trip to New York this past weekend, and have since edited it so it actually makes sense instead of simply being shorthand “Peacockese”.)
Here I sit on a no frills airliner with no First Class, no Business Class, no passenger status that is delineated by labeling you with arbitrary terms like “Platinum” or “Diamond” or some other precious metal or stone. It’s just me and 150 people just like me who all paid less than $200 to fly to New York from Atlanta.
I’m a full-time writer now, which means I’m also full-time broke. And as such, when I need to head to another place that’s farther than a six hour drive, I’m immediately attracted to the budget air carriers like Spirit, JetBlue, and Southwest. These carriers have a few things in common: they’re cheap, they’re extremely charge-happy if you choose to upgrade literally anything including your level of thirst (so you’re inclined to just stick it out), and they know exactly who their customers are and treat them all with respect.
On its face, There’s nothing truly joyful about being a passenger in an aircraft. You are sitting for hours at a time in a seat designed to be exactly enough space to keep your limbs from developing neuropathy, but no larger. The food is terrible. Self medicating with alcohol costs 4-8x what it would in a bar, which itself costs 4-8x what it does at home. And, you’re experiencing all of this with between 50 to 200 people who are just as miserable as you are.
But the industry has found creative ways to make you feel less shitty about being stuck in a tub in the sky. Things like classism, “at least it’s not’s” and situational spending. And while all of these things — again on their face — are terrible themselves, they’re marginal upgrades from the default, which somehow stimulates dopamine and makes you feel like you’re not only going to get through the experience of heading where you’re heading, you’re going to get there in style.
That is, you’re going to get there somehow better than the next person.
When you travel you’re renting space on some company’s tub. You pay more, you rent a “better” space. I am 6′ 3″ and depending on how many deadlines I have, somewhere between 275lbs and 300lbs. I’ve been this way my whole life. I also travelled a lot in my career(s) between writing books and writing code, and I always paid the premium for a more comfortable seat whenever possible.
I sit here in this budget seat in the middle of the plane, and I can’t imagine why. It’s cramped, sure. It’s a tin can in the sky. It gets me from here to there in a few hours. Cramped, I can live with. And having lived with it a few times this year, I realize I was never buying “more leg room” or “more comfortable seats” — I was buying a marginal upgrade in social status for a few hours to make myself feel less like cattle and more human.
But is it really better? Is the Comfort Plus upgrade really a step up, or is it just an identity signal that says “I have an income that allows me to toss $19-79 bucks at the problem of feeling like one of the cattle, so I can feel better for 2 hours and carry that with me the rest of my trip?”
If the plane goes down, do the Comfort Plus people get their first pick of the caves we all huddle in while we wait to be rescued? And will any of us get to talk to the first class? Will we be the hunters and gatherers for the behind the curtain caste?
First Class has always been insane to me. Paying three to four times more for a seat behind a curtain where you get the premium level of food and champagne I get at Nana’s Chicken and Waffles (real place, btw) at Sunday Brunch for $24.95 doesn’t really make sense to me, especially when we’re going to be back on the ground by the time I finish reading a book. It feels silly.
I think back to former rants on airlines and flying and I’m struck with just how situational all of my frustrations really are. Right now, I just can’t care about things like overhead baggage space or what someone eats on the airplane. We are all here on this budget airline, trying to get from here to there as cheaply as possible.
That’s what airlines have done to us over the years. They convinced us in the 50’s and 60’s that air travel was luxurious at all times, with the best food and the most courteous staff, to try to coax bucks out of middle class pockets. And then, they held that lofty understanding of luxury over us as they sold us “budget” access and treated us terribly until we paid a price above a certain line to be treated the way they promised they’d treat us, all those years ago.
This concept is not restricted to air travel, however. This is the entirety of the middle class marketing machine, in every aspect of our lives. Aspirational messaging directed to milking extra nickels and dimes out of us for the appearance of being smarter than the average consumer, with an income that affords us the very best of the lowest tier of goods available. More essential reading on this concept can be found in the incredible breakdown of Premium Mediocre by Venkatesh Rao and an experiment by Rebecca Jennings on using the best stuff marketed to millennials for a week.
• • •
I just had a lovely conversation with Kathy and Rick, grandparents taking their son to New York for the first time. They’re on fixed incomes and typically take driving trips to locales around southern Georgia, but thanks to budget airlines they can afford to take a big trip to the Big Apple. They have travelled most of their lives and are thankful for this airline and others like it. It opens the doors to cities and places they couldn’t afford to visit just s few years ago. The difference of $150 a ticket adds up when it’s not just you. For three people, that’s 2 nights extra hotel in another city – in other words, a full weekend in a place you’d like to see, all for the sacrifice of not having a can of Diet Coke given to you for “free”.
I realize this rant reads like any number of seminal “American” pieces over the years about the joys of taking Amtrak or Greyhound and how getting in touch with the “salt of the earth” people made the writer a whole person, and that’s fine. That’s what this is, honestly. I’m 41 and I’m only now starting to figure out just how much of my life was spent believing bullshit, whether someone else’s or my own.
I think it’s a symptom of middle age. My father once said something to me that I’ve since heard put more eloquently: “In your 20’s, you’re always worried about what people think of you. In your 30’s, you decide you don’t care what other people think of you and start doing your own thing. And in your 40’s, you finally realize: they were never thinking of you in the first place.”
I cannot tell you how much of a relief that last bit has been for me. Scary, yes. For someone whose career has always been dependent on how many people are paying attention to him at any given moment, that sentiment is as close to death as one can get. But as time goes forward and I move from blogging to writing books, I also move from living in public to a much more private understanding who I really am. And among other things, I’ve settled on the fact that I’m a guy who hates flying, but hates bullshit even more, and will likely fly Spirit or JetBlue or Southwest for the remainder of my days — if I even fly at all.
This, I feel, is a natural evolution that comes from the cessation of watching television, reading magazines, browsing commercial news sites, and otherwise disconnecting from the omniculture status quo of being told “Here’s where you fit in.” And I’m hardly alone.
The reason advertising companies (and, be it known that Google is, in fact, an advertising company first) are so keen on slurping up every ounce of available data on you is because they’ve run out of ways to convince you they know best. We as a society have been turning away from the apparatus that tells us what to see, how to think, who we should know, and how to feel about ourselves. That’s not to say they haven’t found ways to succeed; quite the opposite. That’s why their methods have become spurious and nefarious. They need to know more about you, because they need to find ways to involve themselves in your life, because you’ve stopped listening when they speak.
All of this from flying to New York for $165 round trip last week… I know, right? Except, it is exactly the kind of microcosm that shines a light on the greater whole. When you’re on a tin can in the sky with zero options available to put yourself ahead of someone else, you accept it. You quit looking sideways at the guy who packed a fried chicken lunch or the parents with the kid who is overcurious. You can’t escape into wifi to take sly pictures of people less fortunate than you to embarrass them on Instagram or Facebook for likes. There’s no one to look down your nose at, because you’re all at eye-level with each other.
You just kind of accept “this sucks, might as well disappear into my headphones and a book.” Or, talk to someone new. It’s easier in this situation, because there’s no weird social compensation in exchange for money that’s being actively advertised by the entity you’re trusting to get you from here to there.
And when you get off the plane, even if for a brief moment, there’s this glaring realization of all the ways the airlines and the airport and the companies affiliated with either are using the situation to their advantage. Red Bull is six dollars a can. Coffee is four dollars a cup. Headphones in the Best Buy vending machine are marked up 20%. All of this was invisible when you arrived at your airport, and is especially invisible if your flight is delayed or you’re stuck. Because at that point, you’re not paying a premium, you’re paying a misery tax — one you’re fine with paying if the misery is somehow lessened.
It doesn’t stop at the airport. And the companies doing it aren’t ignorant to it. They all know exactly how to push your button in every situation you’re in, because they have precise data on exactly how you behave in those situations.
I don’t really have a conclusion here, because after all, we’re all still alive and living in this reality we’ve come to accept as real somehow. I think the conclusion is somewhere far off, after those who see this have tried rebelling, and those who don’t see it (or see it and don’t care) have decided apathy is the better course, and the voices of dissent slowly fade off.
But anyway, New York was great. I got a beautiful picture of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center! Wanna see?