I had a wonderful summer vacation-all but the last eight hours of it. That’s when my family and I flew back coach on a nonstop flight from Venice to New York. The problems actually started earlier that morning, as my two daughters and I were having breakfast in the Thomas Mann room at the Hotel des Bains on the Lido. A couple of American children-a brother and sister from Chappaqua that our younger daughter had become friendly with, and who happened to be returning home on the same flight as us-came over to our table and asked what class we were flying back in. I reluctantly admitted that we were booked in economy.
“You really ought to see if you can upgrade to business class,” the boy, who couldn’t have been more than 10, stated enthusiastically. “It’s worth the extra money.”
I wanted him to leave, but he launched into a recitation of the fun that awaited him and his family, including individual TV monitors into which he could hook his PlayStation and play video games clear across the Atlantic. The boy went on that it would be great if he could persuade his dad to move back to coach so that our kids could come forward and experience the excitement for themselves. But he didn’t see that as a realistic possibility, since his dad was also a video-game fanatic. He mimicked his father at the controls, his body lurching backward and forward as he zapped terrorists or space aliens.
The bespectacled young man ended his visit by confiding that he much preferred Business Elite to first class (and asked me whether I shared his sentiments). The flight attendants never left you alone in first class, he noted, constantly plying you with food and gifts. In business class, one did get the occasional breather.
The boy finally took leave of our table, but his words echoed in his wake, and I started feeling bad for me and lousy for my kids. I knew it was absurd, petty, spoiled. My kids had just spent a month in Europe-riding the roller coaster at Tivoli Gardens, encountering a moose in the wilds of Sweden, buying Versace jeans in Venice (when you’re 13, as my older daughter is, shopping constitutes a peak experience). But now I felt as if they were deprived.
While I’m aware that many people flying first and business class are doing so on frequent-flyer miles, I couldn’t help but see the incident as a metaphor for life in America these days. We’re rapidly becoming a banana republic, where the rich are at the controls and everyone else is crossing themselves in the back of the plane.
And Delta, our carrier, did nothing to repair my wounded self-esteem. I’m convinced that the airlines have configured coach class not as a way to eke out a profit, but as a form of punishment for those who can’t afford business class. The seats feel like stocks. It’s virtually impossible for someone of my height-6-foot-2-to take a flight without requiring arthroscopic surgery upon arrival. The restrooms are approximately as fresh-smelling as the Port-O-Sans at Woodstock, and the harried flight attendants regard you with incredulity when you request something as modest as an extra packet of sugar.
All this after rubbing your nose in the rewards of wealth by forcing you to march past the already-seated business-class passengers on your way back to the brig as they familiarize themselves with the controls on their Barcaloungers and avert their eyes at your misery.
Flying tourist class didn’t used to be this way. When I started flying I was 8 years old, and plane travel was a gracious, almost magical experience. The stewardesses came by with candy before takeoff-individually wrapped bags of raspberry-shaped bonbons on Air France, little bars of Lindt chocolate with pictures of the Matterhorn on Swissair.
And a trip to the lavatory was like a visit to F.A.O. Schwarz. My father, I’m not embarrassed to reveal, was a small-time thief. He stole a year’s supply of soaps and colognes on those journeys, and taught us to do the same. Eventually the airlines wised up and removed the tops from the bottles so that we couldn’t cart them off, but it took years before they caught on.
I’d steal anything. My mother tells the story of the time I came racing down the aisle holding aloft a brand-new sanitary napkin and shouting, “Mommy, look what I found!” I had no idea what it was; all that mattered was that it was free.
I did enjoy a certain measure of retribution-well, almost-against our Chappaqua acquaintances. As it happened, we were bringing my mother and her hyperactive Boston terrier, Skippy, back from Venice with us. Skippy is so antsy that when my mother takes him to the Animal Medical Center for his annual checkup, the vets there, who see thousands of psychologically damaged animals each year, nonetheless greet Skippy by saying, “It’s the crazy dog.” He’s so energetic that he can jump almost to my height from a standstill-not once, but five or 10 times in succession, or until you force him to quit.
Skippy was fully living up to his potential in the hotel launch that took us and the Chappaqua family to the airport. A couple of hours after my mother had given him his tranquilizer, Skippy and his carrying case were lurching back and forth along the floor of the boat. We weren’t in rough seas; Skippy was merely trying to jump to the ceiling inside his bag. My wife told me she overheard the Chappaqua mom, a pale, small-boned blonde, tell her spouse, a very large tanned guy, that if Skippy was flying Business Elite, she didn’t know what she’d do. Guess what? Skippy was flying Business Elite ! Not only that, but-as fate would have it-my mom and her faithful companion were seated just across the aisle from the Westchester gang. Unfortunately, by the time the plane took off, the drugs had finally kicked in and Skippy descended into something resembling a coma. In fact, he was so uncharacteristically quiet that we briefly grew concerned he might have passed away.
When I came up front to visit my mom, the Chappaqua family made believe they didn’t know me. These were people we’d had several conversations with, whose children had played with our children. They’d even visited our cabana at the beach. Yet because we were flying coach, we were apparently no longer worthy. However, about halfway through the flight, their son did come back to visit. “It’s not so bad back here,” he announced as he gazed at the movie screen at the front of the cabin. “It’s really cool back here.” So he decided to stay. Not with us-I believe my wife made it clear he couldn’t; there wasn’t a single seat to be had in coach-but in the galley, bothering the flight attendants.
The trip wasn’t a total bust, though. The air turbulence was minimal, and on the way out I took my mother’s unopened complimentary Business Elite toiletry kit. When we got home, my daughters and I fought over the L’Occitane lip balm, the toothbrush, the hand cream, the ear plugs, even the Tic Tacs. Those kids are chips off the old block.