Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Air Schadenfreude – Travels with a Decomposing Roadkill Elite Member

The days when commercial flying was glamorous and exciting are obviously long, long gone. The experience of flying went from luxurious and fun, to mundane but tolerable, and has now become an almost comic pain in the ass. Teetering perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy, airlines have to give the impression of value by charging low-seeming fares while at the same time squeezing every possible nickel out of each passenger. As with most products and services, the marginal cost of adding a passenger – the actual cost to the airline of having one more person come on board an already scheduled flight – is virtually nothing. So if a seat is available, and a person is willing to pay anything at all for it, the airline should take his money and welcome him on board. But, at the same time, an airline doesn’t want to cannibalize the rest of its sales by tempting people who would be willing to pay more for a ticket to wait and try to get a lower fare. The solution is for airlines to try to convince people that there are lots of different options available, each distinguishable from the others.

There have always been first class and coach class seats. At some point the intermediate business class arrived on the scene. Now it seems like seats on a plane have been divided up into a thousand different levels, each with a different price tag. Emergency exit row seats with extra leg room. Non-bulkhead seats with more storage for bags. Seats closer to the front of the plane. Seats just outside of the range of where you can smell the toilet. Aisle seats. Seats without a window. Seats near where the stewardess is going to stand during half the flight with her big ass in your face. And while it used to be luck of the draw where you were seated, now every minute distinction is up for auction. A strange airline lingo has evolved to try to make everyday junk sound enticing. Somehow, talking about “beverage service” and “in-flight dining offerings” must make people happier to spend nine bucks on a warm can of Bud Light and a six pack of orange peanut butter crackers.

But the most important factor in the experience of flying, much more potent than the actual physical characteristics of a seat you’re in or the services you’ve paid for, is the sense of where you stand in the hierarchy of flyers. However squished you are in your seat, whatever add-on fee you had to pay to scratch yourself while at cruising altitude, however many rain delays and runway holds and terminal changes and misplaced flight crews you have to endure, it’s all OK as long as someone else is worse off than you are. Air Schadenfreude. The mission for the airline is to make each passenger aware of what caste they are a part of and, more importantly, who among them is of a lesser order. Enter the loyalty reward program.

The airlines will never tell you this, but every person on a plane takes off and lands at the exact same time. Being bestowed with the honor of getting on the plane first really just means that you get to spend twelve extra minutes cramped in your uncomfortable seat. The twenty minute boarding ritual is a modern pageant designed to showcase to the passengers who is a member of what caste. A sort of debutante ball for overweight road warriors. The art of the membership awards program is to create an aura of exclusivity based on nothing. The fact that a lot of airlines actually lay down a red industrial carpet in their first class boarding lines is so laughably ridiculous that it almost qualifies as entertainment (except that there's no additional $6 fee for it).

The tried and true way to imply privileged exclusivity is to name a thing after a rare material. Metals have traditionally been popular. But while silver and gold and platinum status may have had some cache at some point, the words have been overused to the point of becoming not just meaningless, but almost insulting (credit card companies are the main instigators of this trend, but that's a story for another day). Even the proudest Platinum Elite member has to scratch his head when he realizes that dinner is going to be nine lightly salted peanuts in an extremely difficult to open little bag (and that's only if there's not a kid on the plane with a nut allergy). The problem now is that there are not many more rare substances whose names can be tapped. The airlines may be able to conjure up a few more exclusive categories - Hope Diamond Faberge Egg Elite Plus? Weapon-Grade Uranium Preferred? Bead of Sweat from the Furrowed Brow of the Dali Lama Select? - but at some point, they are going to hit the ceiling of elite-sounding physical substances.

There is a solution, though. Since what matters is not the intrinsic, objective level of the hierarchy, but the relative level as compared to others, it would be equally effective to start re-branding status categories at the low end. So instead of referring to the base level class simply as "coach," the low end could be pushed even lower. Even if you are a lowly Plywood Laminate member, you'd feel OK if you knew you'd be able to board the plane ahead of the Festering Flesh Wound members. And if you had purchased a Raw Unfiltered Sewage class ticket but were offered a free upgrade to a Decomposing Roadkill seat (not right next to the door of the bathroom, but still no window or ability to recline the seat), you'd feel like the king of the world.

So the next time you're stuck on a runway, 275th in line for take-off, sandwiched between two morbidly obese vacationers, wondering who really buys the automatic hot dog cooker / bun toaster from the SkyMall catalog, double check your ticket to see what your status level is. Maybe next time you can upgrade. Or at least make a creative suggestion to the stewardess on your way out for a new loyalty reward program level name.


Abhijit "Beej" Das said...

Right on, Dan. Platinum is the new coal...

CWhittaker said...

At this point, I'd just settle for Cubic Zirconia class.