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Silverjet Folds, Mass Luxury Finished?

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Silverjet, the last all-business class airline flying from the U.S. to London, suspended service today. The proximate cause is the staggering cost of oil --$125 a barrel, as opposed to $55 when Silverjet started flying in 2007, according to Bloomberg. This increase in overhead has put all airlines into panic mode, with charges for second bags, first bags, ticket price increases. I have started to wonder whether flight attendants will soon pass collection plates mid-flight, to keep the plane in the air.

The Silverjet concept was interesting though, since it had its core the idea of "mass luxury", what some called "masstige". It positioned itself as an affordable business class, a ticket cost about a-third of a traditional carrier's business class ticket, its appeal was to leisure travelers who didn't want to sandwich in coach, and smaller companies that wanted their people to arrive on the ground ready to work, but wanted to manage their travel expenses. It appealed, I think, to the 53% of Americans who believe they will become rich if they try, and to the nearly one-third who fully expect to become rich -despite the fact that half of US households earned less than $48,201 in '06. (Read more about income data, especially if you think NYC is an exception to all this, here.)

Affordable luxury fueled that fantasy, because it gives you a taste of what you see as your rightful future in your more modest reality. And that made Silverjet really interesting to me, because honestly, an airplane is one of the last places where you can commonly find a rigidly enforced, almost colonial class system, where the unwashed masses in coach are not even allowed to see the aisle of the patricians riding in the front of the plane. (Of course I take free frequent flier upgrades whenever I can, so I know how it feels both at the top and where I am must commonly, steerage.)

I have often had a fantasy -- usually midway through a long-haul flight when I'm seated in coach -- that the entire plane is suddenly transformed into all premium class seats. Walking on to the Silverjet 767, which I did for the first, and I suppose the last time last month, I had the odd feeling of fantasy becoming reality.

It was weird too to fly business class and proceed to the back half of the plane. Of course, the seats were exactly the same throughout the plane, it made no difference where you sat, but still, it sort of felt like by rights, my seat should have been be up near the cockpit. And as I got myself settled, I realized something else: there was a palpable lack of the schadenfreude that you have when you're settled into your cushy seats with your champagne, while the rest of the plane heads back to their dreary fate.

It's really too bad Silverjet didn't survive. It was a helluva lot better than coach -- you could stretch out, you had personalized service, meals served on china, a personal entertainment unit and so on. You checked in at the lounge, which meant you didn't have to stand in line at a counter, also very nice. But you did get what you paid for: in-flight, the service was not quite as good as what you'd get from flight attendants who only have a handful of passengers to tend to rather than 100, the lounge in Newark was small and had no private bathroom, the personal entertainment unit was awkward, and the seats were closer together than you'd have in a traditional business class.

Which you'd be flying if you were, in fact, really wealthy.

And with mass luxury falling on hard times, it's going to get harder for most of us to pretend even for a moment -- or a transatlantic flight -- that we are among the affluent.