Red Carpets and Platinum: Travel and Privilege

“Are you a Preferred Customer?,” asked the hard woman working the late shift at the hotel counter. I was checking in and there was no one else waiting.

“No.” I smile. “Does that make me an ‘Unpreferred Customer?”

“Of course, not,” she said, smiling back.

“But if I’m not a Preferred Customer, then what am I?”

“Well, I guess you’re just a super duper customer,” she said, now fully in on the joke and revealing her Midwestern heritage.

“Jeeze,” I mused. “It seems like hotels today should prefer all their customers.”

“You’re right about that!,” she said. “I’d like to remain a preferred worker so I can’t really tell you what I think of that language.”

“Okay, I’ll take the Unpreferred Customer Special.”

The hardest place to pretend that the U.S. is a classless society is when traveling. After all, it’s the travel industries who put “Class” into “First Class.” Instead of the avoiding the language of class, the travel industry seems to flaunt it.

The airline, hotel and rental car companies appear to be competing to create gradations of privilege within their travel options. Starwood Hotels has their “Starwood Preferred Guest program. Hertz has the No. #1 Club, American Airlines has AAdvantage. There are Platinum Programs, Avis Preferred Customers, and a number of references to monarchy.

You can envision these marketing departments sitting around and trying to cook up special perks that they can deny some travelers in order to create new rungs on the travel class ladder. While many non-market institutions-–schools, religious institutions, community organizations-–aspire to a culture of classlessness, the travel industry throws itself pell-mell into embracing rankism.

I’ve found it interested to poke at the class assumptions and rank-oriented language regularly deployed by airlines, hotels, and car rental agencies.

Most airlines have gone to the ridiculous lengths of creating separate lanes as you get on planes. I encourage people to accidentally walk in the wrong lane to see what happens. Most of the times, the hardworking airline folks can’t hide their disdain for the silly rules they have to enforce.

“I’m sorry sir, you are not a Red Carpet customer.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, am I in trouble?”

“This is your lane, sir,” he said, pointing to the lane without the red carpet.

“Does the Red Carpet get vacuumed more?”

“We personally scrub it with a toothbrush,” smiled the ticket agent.

The air travel gradations have gotten pretty extreme, and they each have a segmented price. You can buy more leg room, a window seat, a forward seat, etc. Some of the tray tables on the flights have advertisements on them. “If they could put an advertisement on my backside,” quipped one flight attendant, “I’m sure they would do it. Thank God we still have a union to protect our last shred of our dignity.”

Here’s the good news, however. Even people in the lowly coach can, for a price, can buy into some of the privileges. For $47 on United, you can get the “Premier Travel” option with the legroom, boarding with group 1, priority security line access, TWO bags checked free. And if you pay even more money, you can get a way from the rabble in the Red Carpet Club lounge with free soda.

My eminently sensible partner, Tricia, seems impervious to these offers. “I look at the people in First Class and how much more they paid, and I think it’s totally NOT worth it. Now, if they delivered your suitcase to your house, that would be special.”

Imagine how you would feel, however, if you paid the $47 and got to security and there was no line, not even for the Un-Premier folk? And you get to the plane, and a bunch of plebian renegades are tromping across the Red Carpet, sullying it with their sneakers?

The next logical outcome of the race to rank is remove more privileges from the bottom tier. I propose a new “Steerage Class” for the cheapest budget travelers. Mandatory 30-minute security process, with frisking and dog sniffing? No seats in the waiting area? No pretzels, drinks or smiles from travel attendants? Less oxygen in the case of changing cabin pressure? And then take it to its logical extreme: in case of plane crash or fire, all the other passengers get to exit first!

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