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Dane Steele Green

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The Passenger Aircraft Caste System

Posted: 11/28/11 08:00 AM ET

First Class. When I hear those two words, I think of the comfort, service, warm chocolate chip cookies, pre-boarding and airport lounge access even though -- when I actually break it down -- I'm really just talking about extra space, a larger seat and a better meal: Big whoop. But it still intrigues me for some reason and I become obsessed with flying in the premier cabins of airlines, as do many other travelers worldwide. Actually, what makes flying up front on a commercial jet so alluring is that on an airplane, a simple caste system is created for the few hours you are in-flight.

On board, you have the Commoners in Economy, the Businessmen seated in Business Class and finally the Royals in First Class. The entire flow of how the system works is intriguing. The airlines have introduced these higher classes of service and certainly do their best to market and promote their premium cabins. Airlines work hard on promoting their "money making" seats, which always have to be the best on the competitive market in technology and comfort. Add a teaspoon of supply and fold it in with heavy demand and you've got yourself a sought out product that passengers yearn for.

In order for economy, business and first class to differentiate from one another, there are authentic rules and regulations to each of the three caste classes on board. The Commoners wait on long lines, pay extra fees for their bags, are limited to how much they can bring on board and receive poor service with little or no food on board. The Commoners are frequently not treated well by the flight crew, which we can also call the "hierarchy" to the caste system. Ahead of the Commoners comes the more monied caste. Members of the Business Class caste can check bags with no fees, have separate areas for check in for their caste class only and are invited to pre-departure lounges where they can mingle with other members of their caste prior to their departure. On board, they are offered spacious seats, gourmet multi-course meals, gift packages, and plenty of surprises. The Commoners are very aware of the Business Class. It is written everywhere--on airport signs, on the separate check in security lanes, and on a red carpet, which they are only allowed to step on at boarding time. The Business Class is always invited to board an aircraft first. This actually helps kick start the entire on board caste vibe.

As the Business Classmen take their seats, the champagne, juices and pre-flight services begin. The Commoners are then invited to board, passing right through the area that is dedicated only to business class travelers. As the lines to the back of the jet get backed up with people, the commoners get a glimpse of what is offered in front of them. They are teased as the upper class fidgets with their electronic massage seats while sipping on cold red wine and munching on salted nuts. Announcements are made of the entire PA systems. One may frequently hear remarks such as "Business and First Class passengers; make sure to have your electronic seats and foot rests in the upright position and be sure to stow your monitors.

The entire caste system on boards hears instructions for the elite casts, making these perks known. Why don't they segment the PA system? Once takeoff occurs, the curtains that separate the two classes are abruptly closed. Members in economy are in no way allowed to enter into the area of business class or they will be sent back to where they came from. Throughout the flight the commoners are continuously teased with the sound of luxurious silverware tapping on fake bone china along with the smell of delicious meals and warm cookies.

In front of Business Class is First Class where its Royalty members reign. This is the epitome of the hierarchy of the system. Members of this extremely elite caste of the plane are usually not seen, nor heard; individuals who are well known and need additional space, security and VIP treatment. They are most certainly kept away from the Commoners and most of the time from the Businessmen. One may never even see a Royal on board a flight as they are protected. Many airlines even offer private car service to and from the aircraft for the Royals.

Obviously, an individual must buy into one of the caste systems. The amount one pays for their ticket instantly classifies them places a monetary and social value on that an individual. The airlines offer incentives for higher paid tickets in their frequent flier programs. Their most loyal customers are showered with points; the more you fly, the more points you accuralaccrue the more you pay for your ticket, the more bonus points you receive. This causes a chain reaction, where the rich get richer, and the poor stay poor. Frequent fliers are invited to enter into a higher caste class when they reach specific status levels in their frequency of flying. One may be converted from a Commoner to a Businessman or from a Businessman to a Royal. However, under no circumstance may an individual jump two caste classes, the airline hierarchy will not allow that; for example Commoner to Royal - no way, it is impossible. If a traveler does not fly frequently nor pays into a higher caste class, they are assigned to the back.

It is shocking to realize that many travelers will pay over $5,000 for a flat bed for a single 8 hour period, but will not pay over $1,000 for their extra large-pillowtop-tempur-foam-plush bed where they spend an average of seven hours per night. The airlines (hierarchy) have made such a buzz about their premium cabins that individuals and corporations are throwing their money out on this product. Yes, one does get better rest in a larger flat seat, but is it really worth it? The onboard menu for the upper classes may have been mastered by a celebrity chef or a congress of intelligent sommeliers, but is the food ever really of high restaurant quality or beyond delicious? I may rather stop at Bennigans on the way to JFK and order an early bird meal to go. Here is another question for you: if economy class somehow introduced lie-flat seats for everyone, would business class passengers decide to save money and downgrade their travels to a lower class of service in economy? Is it really just the comfort?

Each passenger pays a different price for his or her selected class of service, depending on when it is purchased. The gentleman seated next to you might have paid $500 more for his ticket. The guy behind you, $200 less. And then you have the travelers spending up to $20,000 for their round trip ticket all the way up front in First Class. Take away all the extravagant sought-after perks, glitz, glamour and false opulence of a flight; the amusing thing is that every passenger arrives at their destination at the same exact time.

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