June 09, 2016

Air Travel, Class, and Relative Deprivation

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Air travel is one of the only places where class distinctions are made starkly apparent: whether you are sitting in first class or in coach (although some airlines also have "business class" or "economy plus") serves as a visible reminder that there are class differences in America.

A study of "air rage" incidents recently made the news, finding that "disruptive passenger incidents" were about four times as likely to happen when there was a first class cabin. When everyone had to walk through the first class cabin to board, the outbursts were especially likely to occur.

It's not simply seeing others enjoying more perks that the study's authors thought might be provoking more problems among the rest of the passengers, but instead the feeling that they were not being treated as well likely sparked resentment. It's one thing to see first class passengers enjoying an upgraded meal with wine, but it's another to have no food for coach passengers. If you are under 30, you might not remember a time when all passengers on domestic flights lasting a few hours or more could expect a meal—even a hot meal—on most flights. As seats get closer together and the passenger reclining in front of you reduces what's left of your personal space, you might get a bit testy.

When I was growing up, my grandmother would ask me if I'd picked out a nice outfit for a plane trip, which I thought was pretty funny since my goal was to wear whatever was comfortable and easiest to sleep in. But when she was young in the early days of air travel it was much more exclusive, more expensive, and something passengers dressed up for. Air travel was a signifier of status. If she were alive today, she would be shocked by how much the experience has changed.

We all know that first class passengers can pay a lot more money for their seats than the rest of us do, and as someone who has had first class lobster during a flight (I upgraded using frequent flier miles) I can tell you paying hundreds of dollars extra for a flight is hardly worth the benefits.

Then again, traveling in coach today creates opportunities to become irritated with fellow passengers and airline personnel. Economic pressures since 9/11 and the Great Recession now mean that things that used to be part of the price of flying cost extra: besides paying for meals there are fees for checking bags, for flying stand by, for switching to an earlier flight, for sitting in an exit row, and even to ensure that you have seats with family members --including small children.

All this means the boarding process takes longer, as people drag bags onboard that they once would have checked and attempt to load them in overhead bins, often crowding out other people's bags. When parents try to get seats with their children they might ask other passengers to switch into a middle seat or out of a seat they paid a premium for.

And that's once you're on the plane. Because planes fly closer to capacity, if a weather delay or a personal emergency happens and you need to book a flight at the last minute, it is more likely to be a hassle. And you might have to pay a fee for talking to someone on the phone. Cutbacks might mean long security screening lines and crowded terminals, even for those who have paid extra for expedited screening through the TSA's "Pre-Check" program. These are the little things that turn into big resentments that occasionally boil over when people are in close quarters (and as the study notes, it might also be that people who have been drinking too much cause trouble).

This isn't just class-based jealousy, but an example of relative deprivation. People who can afford airfare are typically not among the most economically disadvantaged, but they might feel that they are being deprived of something they deserve—such as more elbow room on a plane or basic customer service. As I mentioned above, air travelers used to enjoy many of basic services which have either gone away or cost more, and they may resent that something that was once a given, like a seat assignment with your toddler, is now a potential headache. Other examples of relative deprivation include being told that you cannot attend a field trip but your classmates can, as sociologist Pawan Dhingra notes happens to some kids in India if resources aren't available to send the whole class. Or imagine if students who paid full tuition without financial aid also received their textbooks at no additional cost on the first day of class--in front of everyone else. This certainly could create resentment.

Relative deprivation is not simply about individual envy, but reflects deeper issues of inequality. It is about lacking something people feel that they deserve rather than begrudging those that have it. And in the case of air travel, we can see that resentment takes place in a context of economic shifts, where people feel like they are getting less than they once did.

Comments

Nice information, I like it.

As someone who enjoys traveling, I board a plane at least once a year. I have never flown in first class and always fly in economy seating. I can relate to this article because sometimes I have found myself feeling envious of the first class passengers for having more privilege than what I have. However, a part of me also tells myself, they deserve to be there. They paid more money than I did to be there, so they must have worked hard to be able to afford their ticket. This relates back to the ideology of the American Dream.
Most Americans flying in economy class seats would fall into the middle class. Those in middle-class America do not often lack food, comfortable seating, and room to stretch their feet. When these everyday privileges are taken away from them, I would rightfully understand how someone could get upset. It does not help that the economy seat passengers have to walk by the first class cabins and see privileges they do not have, such as enough room to fully recline their seats. According to The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology by Kerry Ferris and Jill Stein, relative deprivation is defined as “a relative measure of poverty based on the standard of living in a particular society”. Because the first thing I see when I boarded a plane are the first class seats, my mind defines that as the standard of living in society.
Although my family would not be in relative deprivation outside of the plane, on board the plane we are. The definition of relative deprivation differs from place to place. For example, a college student struggling to pay rent at UCSB would be in relative deprivation if he chose to live in Santa Barbara. The standards of living in Santa Barbara are higher than his. However, if he chose to live in the nearby college town of Isla Vista, the standards of living would change, and the same student would no longer be in relative deprivation. I find it interesting how this works and regarding the ‘air rage’ incidents linked in the blog post, I also find it interesting how people react to being in relative deprivation. Yet if flying became a ‘classless’ experience and had the same perks offered to everybody, I am not sure I would be able to predict the reaction of those who are used to flying in first class and being stratified above others. Sociologists know well enough that it is nearly impossible to please everyone.

When I go to the airport its all such an exciting experience for me. Im about to board a medal machine that flies in the sky. Thats pretty much the main thing on my mind, well up until now. As soon as I read this article I sat back and a just sighed. Karen Sternheimer made it so clear and easy to understand how our society is stratified. She uses a perfect example on airlines which made it easy for me to relate to. Everyday I encounter social inequality and even though I don't see it as evident in my day to day life I automatically picture a time when I was placed in a small uncomfortable seat because my mom couldn't afford first class. But whats wrong with not being able to afford first class, like honestly? Yes there are people who pay for more maybe because they can afford or because they want to be catered for a few hours, or both, but it is not okay to take away the someone else basic rights just because its not in their budget. Relative deprivation would not affect me as much outside of an airport but it still a major contributing factor in our community. Small acts like stratifying people based on socioeconomic status negatively impact our surroundings. Its as almost our world is the inside of an airplane. We are all categorized anyway. First class is the uppers class, business class is the middle class and economy class is the lower class. We could say the pilots are the president and vice president and the all the stewardess can range from members of the senate, police officers, to your local barista. Its unbelievable how closely we relate to such a bazaar and inhumane structure of living. Maybe back when white men ruled all it was normal to live to this way, but now it just seems obscene. If we keep dividing people up into categories there wont be any variation and thats whats our country is based on. Im not saying we should steal all the money from the rich and disrupt equally among everyone, Im saying that there has to be a point where our wealth, skin color, race, and gender shouldn't be the main factor of how we treat an individual. I know we have made tremendous progress throughout history with social statues and there is still so much more work to be done but we cant start integrating inequality into places like the airport and it cant continue to happen in other places. In the future I do see our world as an equal place without (to much) stratification but its something we really need to work on and I promise you we cant do that alone, but its a good place to start.

I travel fairly often so the process of walking through first class back to coach seats is not a foreign concept to me. I’ve never flown first class. Normally, I don’t really find it that big of a deal. Of course it is nicer but it is also a lot more expensive and at least for a shorter flight, I don’t think the extra money is worth it. The times where I’ve felt just a little bit of resentment is when I’ve flown internationally on thirteen or fourteen hour flights. It is easy to feel jealous when you are trying to sleep sitting upright and the people in front have seats that turn into beds. The most jealous I’ve been of first class passengers is when I was flying home from Cambodia this last spring break. I had gotten extremely sick the last couple days we were there and was extremely sick on the flight home. I had a high fever and my whole body ached so all I wanted to do was be able to lay down, which I was not able to do but I knew the first class passengers could. Besides that specific incident, I don’t really find myself feeling resentment or jealousy while on a plane. I consider myself lucky to even be able to fly and travel, and normally I’m super excited for wherever I’m going.
I think the idea of relative deprivation is super interesting because it can change so much just depending on where you are. You can go fifteen minutes away and the standard of living will completely change. It is just so much different than absolute depravation. I feel like most people experience relative deprivation at some point in their lives, whether it is flying coach on a plane, moving to a rich area, or not being able to go out with all your friends because you can’t afford it. For me personally, if I start to feel jealous or resentment, I try to step back and look at the bigger picture. I might be experiencing relative deprivation because of what type of society is currently around me, but if I look at society as a whole, being in the middle class in the United States, I am in no way deprived.

I chose this article because I have witnessed this relative deprivation first hand and I know that it exists within our everyday lives whether we notice it or not. When I think of relative deprivation I picture a middle class person complaining about certain privileges that they don’t have which may be seen as a serious luxury to someone in another financial status. This is obviously not the only case as every class can experience a certain level of relative deprivation unless you are looking at people experiencing complete deprivation. In this particular situation though the focus is on people who have enough wealth to afford air travel, but are feeling deprived due to differences in privilege between the seat classes.
From a personal perspective I have felt somewhat deprived when, in particular, boarding a plane. The specific example that comes to mind is the fact that the plane is boarded from highest paying customers to the lowest. This never made sense to me. I always thought that it was strange for the people who sit at the front of the plane and who have the best accommodations to be boarded first because then everyone who boards afterwards has to squeeze past them bear direct witness to the privileges that they are missing out on. This made me feel deprived because I thought it unfair that they get to board first, then when I board I have to squeeze and nudge past them saying excuse me several times. This is my personal experience with relative deprivation on a plane and having this personal insight makes me understand and agree with the point that Karen Sternheimer is trying to make. The fact that Sternheimer’s analysis of relative deprivation in air travel invoked such feelings in me, and made me think critically about times that I have experienced this deprivation in the past shows that she is effective in getting her point across.

As an avid traveler, constantly visiting my family in my home country, I get on a plane at least twice a year. I have only flown in first class one time in my life, not because I paid more for it, but because I got upgraded by the airline. My father, on the other hand, is a lawyer who has to travel outside the country at least once a month because of work, for which he usually travels as a first class passenger. Most of the time, his clients are the ones paying for it, and sometimes he does, but he is very rarely a coach seat passenger, it almost is like a business trip requires a business class seat. But, when it comes to family vacations, my family and I always travel on coach, not only because it is much more expensive to get 4 first class tickets, but because that money could be spent on something else once we get to our destination.
This past spring break was the first time I bought a plane ticket with money that I had earned myself, and a first class ticket was not even an option for me. I had saved just enough for a regular ticket. I paid my whole trip to Cancun under a student budget. When I got to the airport I found the surprise that I had to pay extra for my luggage, $26 that I could have spent on something else like a taxi to the hotel. As if it was not enough, food was not included in the flight for economy class, and again, I was on a tight “poor” student budget so I could barely afford the expensive airport food. In contrast, whenever I go back home, I do not face this issue since my parents are the ones paying for all the trip expenses. I am relatively deprived on my student life when we compare it with my daughter life.

Thanks for sharing

The article ultimately intrigued me because I have not given thought to relative deprivation being present in air travel. As someone who travels on planes pretty frequently I was interested in reading about the dilemmas that were entangled within this sociological topic. Air rage was a vocabulary word that I had yet to be able to define before reading this article. I understood that problems are bound to occur within any highly public and environment but Sternheimer’s point of view exploited a plethora of knowledge about this subject. Since reading this article I believe I will keep in mind that social stratification and relative deprivation can negatively impact a majority of fellow passengers. My interest was caught when I read how class difference is a way to expose socioeconomic differences in a very public manner.
I have been fortunate enough to experience traveling in first class from a young age as well as sitting in lower classes. This allowed me to keep an unbiased, open mind to the author’s opinions embedded throughout the article. My perspective was altered when I understood how the benefits can ultimately be very minimal and that they show-off economic stability among thousands of strangers. I believe this to be accurate through my personal experience because despite having more leg room, entering the plane premises early, and having special food be included in my travels, it seems almost pointless to have to choose between a higher and lower class. Every passenger is still sitting on the same plane within the same enclosed premises for the same number of hours. With this being said, the author’s point was not to assume envious emotions but more sore a strive for equality in a major public space.
I was able to relate to the point made that flying was a luxury in the past and passengers would dress up for this special occasion. My mom has always made it imperative that we dress up nicely and avoid wearing pajamas or sweatpants on the plane because we should be grateful for receiving the grandeur ability to travel via plane. Traveling is quite the experience and tickets are expensive so it should be required that everyone who is spending money to travel through the air should be treated with equality, respect, and have their basic customer service needs attended to. Flying can be stressful as there is a lot going on and there is a constant rush to arrive to one’s destination on time. Extra air rage caused by economic benefits should be executed completely so that the tension can be lowered and air travel can run smoothly. I agree with the points made in Sternheimer’s article and hope to see a positive change develop, an awareness of inequality to arise, and a lack of air rage to be present.

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