Small World: The Not So Friendly Skies

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

I take up my pen this morning not to promote “class warfare,” please be assured, but as a war correspondent on the battlefronts between classes. Have you noticed how few and how controlled those fronts are?  How rare it is for rich and not so rich to mix and mingle together?

In olden days, the two groups lived around the corner from each other or up or down a flight of stairs. Now, there are miles between them. It is a chore for the under class to get to their jobs working for the folk above them. Often, there are barriers and gates that keep them apart.

Their children go to separate, but unequal schools. They drive different kinds of vehicles, stay in different hotels, dine in different eateries and shop in different stores. The really poor are picked up and removed from the streets trod by their betters.

Perhaps, there is but one arena left for encounters between top and bottom citizens in our society: (Here begins the intended business of these paragraphs.) That is air travel. Taking a plane somewhere is about the only place where rich brushes up against not-so-rich even while clearly divided from them. Air travel informs us about the reality and complexity of our democracy as it exists today.

A couple of weeks back, my wife and I booked airline tickets for a destination almost half way across the country. Going and coming back, there were five different flights departing from five cities. The aircraft were mainly those new, Brazilian-made, pencil-shaped jets with insufficient space for larger-than-normal carry-on bags.

Boarding was divided into three groups: #1 was first-class, #2 was business types and #3 was the huddled masses. Among the latter, somehow, we were mostly in seats 19 or 20 behind which there was no other human. We weren’t called first to board, as used to be the way to fill from rear to front; group one was called first to make themselves comfortable up forward before the masses squeezed by.

I was seated too far back to see what the first folk up front were served while we got a soft beverage and no snack. Perhaps, it was the domestic equivalent of transatlantic white tablecloth, silver and fine wines. On those longer flights, one really is made aware of who counts above the clouds. On short domestic hops, there is no curtain to draw between those who have legroom and the don’t haves.

Waiting between flights provides an even better perspective for studying the sociology of our country. Americans come in the widest variety of shapes, shades and status. Traveling in the Middle East as we used to do, we could easily spot the baggy pants of Kurds, the robed Bedouin, the bearded or veiled Islamists. I am not keen enough back home to identify the origins and aspirations of the American multitudes. Dress is not a determinant for most people. It was plain, however, that I was in the minority of those who wore socks, shoes and long pants and far apart from those who were tattooed.

I recall the time when air travel was like going to a formal event: you had to wear a coat and tie. In those distant days, my mother would get dressed up just to go to the store. No more. High casual is the ruling fashion in flight.

How different from when long ago we first went abroad for the State Department. We sailed in first-class on an elegant ocean-going liner. I was obliged to wear a tuxedo for dinner. (I conveniently failed to pack mine, however.) Those trips, to be sure, were at U.S. government expense in an ultimately failed effort to save the national passenger fleet.

Voyaging at someone else’s expense is perhaps is the way most first class folk these days are traveling by air — at the expense of the U.S. government or generous employers and not out of their own pockets.

If so, that might mean that we can all aspire through hard work and good luck to elevation into the ranks of the first group for seating. It is the birthright of Americans to achieve upward, up and away mobility.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

Please follow and like us: