Monday, September 21, 2009

The aspirational elite

Back in town, back on-line. I didn’t anticipate being scarce for the whole week, but it’s harder to justify $10 for an hour of Internet time when I’m paying for it myself. So, the week became a good opportunity to enjoy travel, new places, old friends, and a variety of experiences. Not a bad thing. And it’s nice to come back to lots of unread mail and blog posts and to catch up with what everyone has been doing.

Air travel always seems like a difficult gateway to any trip: the airports are regimented, security is a constant problem with packing and unpacking, dressing and undressing, airlines are indifferent and sometimes punitive in their interpretation of customer service. But the ads demonstrate that they all know how they could get it right and that, for upper-tier passengers, they do.

The airports are full of movies showing the privileges awaiting first-class fliers. I watched one where an immaculately tailored businessman dashed out the front door of an airliner, smiling into his phone, giving the flight attendant a quick handshake, then diving into an adjacent car. I have to wonder what he does and how he managed to do it before age 30. (…and more first-class moments with Susan and Brandon can be found here). As a frequent traveler, it’s all unrecognizable: I’m waiting for a delayed flight, surrounded by carry-ons, reading a second-hand newspaper, trying to decide whether to spend ten euro on a salad-in-a-cup.

I know, it’s aspirational, not real. But there are two things that grate.

First, it demonstrates that the air travel industry knows what people want, can communicate it back, and can even deliver it when asked nicely. For the heaving masses, though, they simply refuse.
Second, it plays to a sense of entitlement that I think is at root of the banking and bonus issues. Respect should be earned by deed, but the subliminal message is that it can be conferred by wealth. Money buys perks; perks signify status, status demands deference, an anonymous form of respect. If video games desensitize our children to violence, would aspirational ones drive rising executives towards excess?

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