This little Marxist goes bourgeois

Pt. 1: Class conflict(ed)

I’m an angry flyer. But it isn’t the poor service, cramped seats, or high prices that raise my ire – you know, the kinds of things that get normal people’s blood boiling. For me it’s the way that most airlines shamelessly highlight the delineation between the haves and have-nots.

First class = the Dutch royal family.

Coach = the Joad family.

I can’t stand it when I’m waiting to board with all the other plebes, hoping that an overhead space will still be available by the time I get to my seat, and the airline employee calmly announces, “at this time we’d like to invite all first and business class passengers to board.” God, it makes me nuts! You just have to stand there and watch as the wealthier among us avoid eye contact and shuffle through the sweaty masses on their way to their fully reclining leather seats.

Before the boarding announcement, I often play a little game in which I try to figure out which ones are the first class passengers. It’s usually pretty easy; they’re often taller and better dressed than the rest of us. Another giveaway is eyeglass frames: they’re not just expensive, but more interestingly designed than most pairs you’ve seen; their owner will be enjoying a complimentary glass of champagne while you’re still waiting for your row to be called.

Given my feelings about flying, you may wonder what it was like for a wannabe class warrior like myself to be given the opportunity to fly from Los Angeles to London as a Virgin Atlantic upper class passenger. The truth is that I was deeply conflicted because it was, in a word, fan-fucking-tastic! For those who’ve never had the privilege, the following is a glimpse into a world that I never dreamed existed: flying with my dignity not only intact but bolstered.

My trip began with a nonexistent check-in line. And by nonexistent, I mean there was no line, none at all. And at the end of the non-line were two cheerful airline reps eager to help me. One placed my bag on the scale while the other took my information and printed my boarding pass. Next I was reminded to make sure that I enter the “correct” security line – the one for upper and business class passengers only. “So the airport is in cahoots as well?” I wondered. “Figures!”

Before I left for security, I was also given a pass to the first class lounge, which Virgin shares with Air New Zealand at LAX. I have to admit a degree of disappointment about this; I imagined the Virgin lounge to be super mod and interesting. On the other hand, New Zealand isn’t really known for interior design ingenuity – great mutton and nice people, yes, but that’s about it.

My experience in the security line was similar to my experience checking in. This is to say it was really more of a non-line than a line. I simply walked passed the other passengers and put my shoes and other belongings on a conveyer belt, which was dedicated to those like me – we who are more important than the rest. I ask you, which of these two lines would you choose?

I was through security in minutes, and without looking around, I walked right up to the Air New Zealand first class lounge. The glass door slid open, and standing before me was a handsome young man. “Welcome to the Air New Zealand lounge, sir,” he said. To which he added, “May I see your pass?” The lobby looked more like the waiting area to an upscale spa than anything I’ve seen at LAX.

“Hello Mr. Godfrey, may I show you our facilities?” the host inquired. “Or have you been with us before?”

Shyly, I declined, and said that I’d be fine. I hoped that no one was watching as I wandered around in amazement. The whole scene reminded me of the classic Eddie Murphy short, “White Like Me,” in which he goes undercover and finds that Caucasians simply give things to each other when there are no African Americans around.

Despite my doubt in Air New Zealand’s panache, the lounge was quite nicely (if not incredibly interestingly) furnished with low-backed sofas and armchairs. The décor was pleasant and modern…pretty much how you’d imagine a place like this looking. In the center of the room was a nice spread consisting of salads, cold cuts, and soups. Sorry, no mutton!

And to the side was a fully stocked, self-serve bar. I helped myself to a New Zealand’s Finest beer – a vast mistake–before switching to a sauvignon blanc, then a cabernet/shiraz blend, and finally, a scotch – by which time I was feeling appropriately lubed for my flight.

I have to admit that I never fully relaxed in the lounge; the whole time I wondered if someone was going to approach me with a bill for my meal and drinks; at which point, the proverbial jig would be up. “We knew you didn’t belong here!” my handsome host would shout at me.

The other bummer about the lounge was that – besides sitting near someone who looked enough like Ricky Gervais that I am 75% sure it was he – there was little in the way of interesting people-watching. Ricky was doing that awesome Office dance, but after a while it became a little overbearing.

After about an hour in the lounge, my host came by to announce the boarding of my flight. And I, not wanting to march past those unfortunate coach-flying souls, waited a while before heading down – a shabby gesture on my part I know, but I at least wanted to keep it real in one respect.

Finding my seat was easy; it was the first one on the plane, and in Virgin Atlantic’s upper class suite there’s only one seat per row. Actually, to call it a seat is a little misleading. It’s more like a personal pod that completely reclines into an 88” long bed, plenty of room for a silly little man like me to actually get some sleep – a state on a plane that I’ve only witnessed in others.

But who wants to sleep, when receiving the royal treatment? Sir Richard Branson himself greeted me, took my jacket, and immediately returned with my pre-takeoff glass of champagne. As you might imagine, I felt pretty special.

(Okay, a slight exaggeration; it wasn’t Sir Richard who greeted me, but my flight attendant was still pretty great.)

Come mealtime, I went with the soup; the rosemary chicken; a cheese plate with port; dessert, which was a somewhat forgettable chocolate thing; and a nice glass of single malt scotch.

My meal would have been adequate anywhere, but given that I was on a plane it was maybe the most surprising meal of my life. And how about these cute salt and pepper shakers? They’re little airplanes with feet; get it? Goddamn adorable!

(Thanks to Swells, AKA “Sticky-fingers Steph,” they now reside in my kitchen.)

After dinner, my very nice flight attendant gave me my pajamas, and told me that while I was changing (right behind the bulkhead curtain – and I was flying commando) she’d turn down and make my bed. I still couldn’t believe I had a bed on a plane. And pajamas? “What could possibly be next?” I wondered, “the mile-high club?”

Before turning in, I had to check out the bar. That’s right, there in a bar in the upper class suite.

I don’t know that I’ll ever experience anything as decadent as sitting at a bar on an airplane in a pair of pajamas drinking a scotch. Yes, I did feel like Hugh Hefner.

Finally, I found my way back to my bed and turned in for the duration. Since my dreams and the landing were way less interesting than the rest of my journey, I shall end the story here.

But before I go, I will say that the world I witnessed was not for the faint-hearted. Danger could’ve lurked around any corner; I could’ve spilled my champagne or a flight attendant could’ve walked in on me while I was changing into my PJs – virtually anything could’ve gone wrong. So those of you who may come into possession of a Virgin Atlantic upper class ticket who don’t feel as though you’re up to the challenge, please pass it along to me. I don’t really care what the destination is. I will go. But still, I’ll feel conflicted about it, I swear.

14 responses to “This little Marxist goes bourgeois”

  1. Rogan says:

    Lucky! The one time I was upgraded due to overbooking, on a flight from NYC to LA, the stewardess told our little family of three that one of us could fly first class. I convinced Susan that only I was prepared to make best use of three hours of free alcohol, which I did with gusto.

    Virgin has always offered a better product than the competition, even in coach. I remember flying to London from NYC, and how impressed I was with a CHOICE of movies available in the little LCD screen on the seat in front of me. No craning my head to see drop-down tv three seats ahead of me. No paying five dollars to rent shitty earphones with a short in the cable.

    And you shouldn’t feel TOO conflicted about your lucky situation, because after all, you stole the salt and pepper shakers. Fuck the man!

  2. rm says:

    Wow, you shouldn’t feel guilty at all but I meant that Rules of Attraction clip in fun and here you trumped it.

    Aren’t light fingered wives the best?

    Scott, thanks for the book, I’ll loan you my copy of Will Self’s Junk Mail. In “Eight Miles High” he describes flying first class (on Virgin no less) as the heroin of travel.

    But please don’t throw it across a gym floor…wince.

  3. Tim says:

    It’s glimpses of how the other 0.25% lives that keep working schmucks like you and me in line and not openly rebelling when we see those tall, well-bespectacled, evenly-tanned privileged few receiving unfairly lavish treatment. We want these things to exist so that some day, some way we can experience them for ourselves. You have now been inoculated against joining the revolution. Oh, I’d do it myself, in a heartbeat. Sigh.

  4. Scotty says:

    Funny Tim, last week I was lunching with a former classmate – someone who’s much more conservative than I, but a swell chap nonetheless. Anyway, he agreed with me that every piece of progressive legislation to be passed in the 20th century is essentially an example of class compromise. Or to use Eugene Debs’ critique of the legalization of craft unions: “You cannot do a thing for yourselves without antagonizing them; and you don’t antagonize them through your craft unions nearly as much as you buttress their interests and prolong their mastery…”

    Yes Timmy, it’s all a shell game, but here’s the rub: if capitalism necessarily needs to produce class compromise – since it needs laborers not only as producers but also consumers, it should continue to give in to worker demands. So what you need to do is form a group, hold a general strike, and demand Virgin Atlantic upper class seats.

    Workers unite!

  5. Marleyfan says:

    OUTLAW ALERT: Sticky Fingers Steph

    It would be interesting to read a post from a first-class regular, who wants a private jet, like we want first-class. WoOuld it be similiar? I’ll bet it would…

  6. Marleyfan says:

    In fact, I think there was one, but I can’t remember who wrote it. About limo’s and private jets.

  7. The Boss says:

    Poor man wants to be rich;
    Rich man wants to be king;
    King aint satisfied till he rules everything.

    From my song “Badlands

  8. Tim says:

    Marleyfan, here’s a little something on P. Diddy’s recent tirade about gas prices. It costs too much to fly his private jet every time he has to go to LA and back to NYC! He had to go commercial to LA on American Airlines! Show some pity, people, and send him some oil. There’s a videoblog and everything. He claims to be flying coach, but I recognize a wide, warm, pleatherette seat in first class when I see one.

  9. Dave says:

    I would lose all class solidarity completely if I got to fly first class for the rest of my life. As it is, as a very occasional privilege, it makes me hate the rich even more.

  10. DaveOw says:

    OK – I’ll take the bait. I fly business class ALL THE TIME, but I’m neither wealthy nor privileged. Really… My job requires that I fly and fly a lot. Over the last four years I’ve logged over 500,000 miles, mostly on United and its Star Alliance partners with Southwest a distant second. That means 4 or 5 times a year, I’m dragging myself around the industrial corners of Asia – Hsin-chu City, Taiwan anybody?! – and all those miles leads to status and upgrade coupons. Does my employer pay for Business or First Class? Rarely. Most of the time, I’m using the coupons I’ve been granted after flying all those miles. The upgrade is hardly a sure thing and most times, I’ll sacrifice a convenient itinerary in order to just have a chance for an upgrade. LAX to Singapore is 17 hours on a plane and I’d rather fly United and stop in Tokyo if it means I’ll get an upgrade rather than fly direct on Singapore Airlines. This professional lifestyle means that the one time a year when I take a vacation, I’m able to ‘share the business-class-wealth’ with my family and oftentimes I’ll help friends and family get upgrades or free flights. I’d have to say that I’d live with coach if it meant I was no longer spending 30% of my life away from home. So I don’t wish I was flying on a private jet, I wish I wasn’t in the air at all.
    Scott – by the way, Virgin upper class (which I’ve never experienced) appears to be at the high-end of the spectrum. I’m glad you had such a comfortably uncomfortable time.

  11. Ivy says:

    NZ is famous for LAMB, dammit! Mutton, indeed…

  12. Scotty says:

    Sorry Ivy, mutton just happens to be a funnier word than lamb (AKA baby mutton).

  13. Mark says:

    I would willingly live under Republican rule for the rest of my life if I could fly first class any time I have to fly again in the future.

    As I put more thought into it, it makes sense. It’s almost to be seen as a tax break, at least those seats appear to cost more than I expect any president to lower my taxes in a given year. If McCain can put my butt in those seats, I’ll put him in the white house.

  14. Stella says:

    I once volunteered to be bumped off a virgin flight from dulles to london, and not only did i get a free round trip flight to anywhere in the world (of course used it to come back to dc), but the next evening they upgraded me to first class.

    I wore those pyjamas but I was too much out of my element to go as far as putting my name in the first class lottery for an on-board massage! In some horribly non-feminist way, I left that privilege to the entitled business men.

    I just flew Air France around Europe, coach of course, and let’s just save “vive l’egalite!” It was so civilized with decent sized seats, glass and metal silverware, no paying for food, wine etc, and the food was quite good. Hurrah for the French who believe in a minimum standard of civilization for all, without paying business class.