Business Travel is for Classholes
In James Kwak’s “Don’t Fall for First Class,” he reveals what uber-luxurious airlines experiences, like the $23,000 Singapore Airlines’ Suites Class, is actually selling: Status.
Ultimately, what Suites Class is selling, along with every other “luxury” first-class cabin in the air, is a feeling of distinction. Air travel is a miserable experience for everyone involved, mitigated only by the immense convenience of being able to show up in another part of the world in a matter of hours. The glamour of high-end air travel, as with any other luxury good, is a function of exclusivity.
During my time on Wall Street, I flew business class several times to London. The emphasis on exclusivity in business travel is almost comically overt. If you fly Virgin Atlantic out of Heathrow airport, in what they unsubtly call “Upper Class,” you are treated to so many amenities, you begin to feel like royalty.
First, there is a free car to pick you up and drop you off at the airport. And they drop you off to what they call “Drive-in check-in,” where you are greeted at your car, assisted with your bags and check-in, and then routed to a totally separate, exclusive security line. When you fly through the metal detectors after no wait, you exit near the regular security line, where you can see everyone else, exasperated and exhausted, as they wait in long lines to get through security. The obvious separateness continues on the plane, where, upon arrival, the crew blocks the rest of the plane from exiting (standing in front of long lines of economy passengers, bracing their arms on seats) until all the “Upper Class” passengers have left.
It doesn’t end there. While at the airport, you are encouraged to visit the lounge, which may as well be a luxury resort. I had many coworkers who’d book a flight in the afternoon, but still leave for the airport at 9am, so they could have a full day in the lounge. And it’s easy to see why: the lounge at Heathrow has a hot tub, a reading room full of enormous art books, a pool table, video games, plush and plentiful seating, a full bar, and there is even a spa. And all the services, drinks, food—everything is free (or so it seems to the business traveler, whose airline ticket has been paid for by their firm). Want a massage before your flight? How about a haircut? Go right ahead: It’s all included.
One time in the Virgin Atlantic Heathrow lounge, I watched none other than Harry Potter himself (ok, it was the actor who plays him, Daniel Radcliffe) rush in with what looked to be his family and friends, order and quickly down some food, then rush out to a flight to Newark, NJ. From celebrity sightings to the open bar, the entire experience is meant to instill a sense of specialness, and more importantly, superiority. The business travelers can never hope to be as cool as the celebrities, but they can sit near them on a plane. Everything about high-end business travel reinforces the worst beliefs the elite undoubtedly already have: That just by virtue of their status, they deserve more.
Kwak argues in his piece that “it’s better to be in your own apartment without a view” than flying in business class with a lay-flat bed. But as he notes, it’s not comfort or convenience that these airlines are selling. It’s distinction. It’s separation from those with lower incomes. It’s a feeling that you are elite.
For some, that eliteness is exactly the feeling they’re looking for. As Jeremy Frommer told business students at SUNY Albany while he was still working at Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), “It’s not just enough to fly in first class; I have to know my friends are flying in coach.”
It may be that Frommer represents an extreme among business travelers. After all, in Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys, Frommer is noted as constantly violating RBC’s “no-asshole rule.” But the fact remains that Frommer, and those who share his attitude, is precisely the audience that elite business travel caters to.