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.


Nice information, I like it.

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