Noblesse Oblige and Airline Class Envy

A great many years ago my husband, daughter and I arrived very late for a flight, owing to a series of unfortunate events, and were offered two seats in first class.

My husband valiantly insisted on taking the coach seat so that my daughter and I could sit up front. When we all reunited after disembarkation in Chicago, our daughter, then too young to know better, asked my husband if he had eaten the enchilada or the salad.

“I ate,” he declared through gritted teeth, “THE PEANUTS.”

This was an instructive introduction to class differences in airline travel. And even though each of us has been able on a few occasions since then to sit in first class, we remain (as the name of my blog indicates) a coach class family at heart.

I was reminded of all this after a minor flap earlier this week over a tweet by Mika Brzezinski of the Morning Joe show on MSNBC. She posted a selfie of herself in first class that showed the host, Joe Scarborough, behind her in coach.

“Look who is in coach¬†#ManOfThePeople,” she tweeted.

Some Twitter users and bloggers responded negatively. For example: “OMG flying in coach! Your smug sense of entitlement is showing.”

The problem here, in my opinion, was not that Brzezinski got to fly in first class but that she appeared to be gloating about it. I doubt she meant to gloat. The tweet was obviously supposed to be a joke.

But it’s not cool to tease people about being less fortunate than you are. Somehow, they never think it’s funny. And when you’re sitting in a seat that’s 21 inches wide with 40 inches of leg room, you are definitely more fortunate than the people¬†in seats that are 17 inches wide with 32 inches (or less) of leg room.

Scarborough may not have minded the tweaking, but the rest of us kind of do. (Besides — look at the photo — Joe was on the bulkhead aisle.)

Every business traveler I’ve ever met seems to know better than to sneer at coach, perhaps in part because most of them end up back there at least some of the time. Over the years I’ve heard only one snooty remark from a first-class passenger, and she looked like a wealthy leisure traveler. Most of them know better, too.

But what about the resentment that some coach passengers express toward the passengers in first class? Well, there may be some of that, but there’s less call for it than ever.

Remember the expression of envy by Renee Zelwegger’s character in Jerry Maguire? “It used to be a better meal, now it’s a better life.” Times have changed. Better is not as better as it used to be.

First class service has, with a few ultra-luxury exceptions, declined. The showers and suites are for a very few, very privileged people. For the vast majority of passengers who fly regularly in first or business, the experience has deteriorated. And seats in the premium classes are becoming less available. Delta’s huge fleet refurbishment will bring a net loss of first-class seats. And if you fly Southwest, there’s nothing to resent at all.

Yet, even if the resentment is inappropriate, it’s just not as insulting as the gloating. We coach passengers would rather be in first class, and everyone on both sides of the curtain knows it.

Most of us know, too, that people get into first class by earning their way in or paying their way in. (The day of the last-minute emergency upgrade we got is long past.) There’s no more point in resenting that than there is in resenting someone’s nice house or fancy car.

Whether there is any point in resenting houses and cars is well beyond the scope of this here budget travel blog, so please don’t accuse me of fomenting class warfare or dismissing income inequality or any kind of political statement at all. What I’m really talking about here is etiquette.

Because most people would never point out that they have nicer houses or fancier cars. That would be #ThoughtlessAndRude.

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