Don’t Fall for First Class

The luxury of being grounded

“It’s an incredible idea, flying.” Peggy Olson, who has never been on a plane, is sitting with Don Draper in an overly lit Greek diner beneath a picture of the Acropolis. “I’ve seen it in the movies,” she says. In Mad Men, planes (usually) go to glamorous, sun-kissed places like Rome, Los Angeles, and Acapulco, everyone gets free drinks, and Don takes a flight attendant up to his hotel room.

Flying was once like that — or, at least, that was once the dream of flying. Today, most people know the reality of cramped seats, crowded airports, and serial delays. Few experiences have been as ruthlessly commodified as air travel. Thanks to yield management systems, a dizzying array of upcharges, and multiple bankruptcies that eliminated both union contracts and capacity, the major airlines have even figured out how to become profitable over the past decade — while becoming steadily less popular with the public.

For the top-tier airlines, however, maintaining an aura of luxury is still crucial to the business model. This is one reason why, even though most travelers buy tickets on the basis of schedule, price, and (for one crucial segment) loyalty programs, airline marketing still tries to evoke the glamour and even luxury of flying. Glossy magazine advertisements would have you believe that the sky is full of lie-flat beds, gourmet meals, and beautiful, happy people.

At the pinnacle of the luxury flying segment is Singapore Airlines’ Suites Class, now memorialized by Derek Low in one of Medium’s most popular articles of the past month. And what’s not to like? For $23,000 or the equivalent in airline miles, you can get the services of not one but two gourmet kitchens (one on the ground and one in the air), an enclosed room with a leather armchair and a full-sized bed (as is increasingly true of hotel marketing as well, the term “suite” here refers to a single room), Ferragamo cologne, and expert advice on your movie selection. If you buy two adjacent seats — with or without a travel companion — you can take down the partition and combine the two beds. For the first time, people can fantasize about having sex in an ordinary-sized bed while flying commercial.

Of course, it’s not hard to see the catch here. Every middle-class family in the developed world already has an ordinary-sized bed — that’s what makes it ordinary. Most people who might find themselves in an airplane already know a restaurant they can go to for a good meal, usually for a good deal less than $100. And most people with cable or an Internet connection already have more digital entertainment options than they know what to do with. And you can get all that, any day of the week, without having to suffer through the noise of the aircraft engines, the reduced air pressure and dry cabin air, and being confined to, even in Suites Class, a space that not even a New Yorker would consider an acceptable apartment. In other words, the most luxurious experience you can have in the sky is not nearly as luxurious as most people’s everyday life.

This may seem obvious. But it’s something to bear in mind now, in this season of on-campus recruiting, when half of the graduating class of every Ivy League school suddenly discovers a lifelong desire to be an investment banker or management consultant.

I’ve written before about why so many bright, ambitious, and successful college seniors decide that the next logical step on their path to being brighter, more ambitious, and even more successful involves a stint at a bank or a consulting firm. The most important factor, I still believe, is those industries’ success at portraying themselves as the logical continuation of an elite education: a short-term commitment that teaches generally applicable skills and opens more doors than it closes.

But the glamour plays its part, too, especially for impressionable kids attracted to the trappings of wealth and success. There is something seductive about the idea that, just a few months after graduation, you could be drinking martinis in airport lounges as you fly — business class, of course — to just about anywhere in the world, where you could drink single-malt Scotch in a luxury hotel bar decorated to look like a nightclub. And so college recruiters, along with airline marketers, have a vested interest in perpetuating the image of long-distance travel as a luxury experience, available only to the privileged few.

Again, however, the reality of business travel is well known. As a consultant, you spend four or five days a week at a client site, and for the most part what you see are the airport, the client’s office, your hotel, and some generic casual restaurant chain where you eat dinner. In my three years of consulting, I had clients in London and Singapore, but also in Brooklyn, Westchester, Toronto, San Jose, Sacramento, and Portland. What you learn is that not only the United States but also much of the world is increasingly becoming more and more alike, at least in the office towers and office parks where businesspeople spend most of their time.

I was at a consulting firm from 1997 to 2000, a time when many young associates were fleeing for Internet startups. I recall that one thing the firm did was upgrade its travel perks: the minimum flight duration to qualify for business class was lowered, and there was something about the firm using its miles to pay for upgrades, and there was something about paying for airport club memberships. At the end of the day, I doubt it convinced anyone to stay. But the pitch did make sense.

No seasoned associate is excited by the prospect of going to, say, Charlotte, North Carolina every week for four months. And no rational person — a class into which consultants like to place themselves — thinks that being able to get a mediocre drink for free in an airport lounge can make up for the drudgery of waking up at four to get on the 6:00 AM flight to said Charlotte. The upgrades and the airport club memberships aren’t about anything rational: they’re about status. Sure, flying first class is better than flying coach — I’ve done both plenty of times — but the material comfort of the experience isn’t that much better: on the ground, someone would have to pay you to sit in a first-class seat for three hours, even if you got mediocre food on a plastic tray and mediocre wine as part of the bargain.

As it turns out (see notes to right of previous paragraph), you can’t get a drink in United’s SFO club until 8 AM anyway. Photo by me.

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. Now that, thanks to Southwest Airlines, most people can afford to get on a plane, there have to be ways to pay more and more to get on the same plane. To get people to pay more, you have to give them something: an emotion, a brand, a story, something. And that’s why we have Suites Class.

When I was in law school, a fellow student doing his summer at a New York firm wrote into the school-wide email list to marvel at his office with its view over Central Park. I told my friend Marcus, another former consultant. “He fell for the office,” Marcus said. It’s better to be in your own apartment without a view and have the freedom to take a walk in the park when you want to. And it’s better to wake up in your own messy bed, eat your own food, and drink your own liquor than do all the same things at 30,000 feet, even if you have to pay for it all yourself.

Title photo credit: Richard Moross (CC BY 2.0)