Luxury in the air: The outrageous gap between “haves” and “have-nots” is widening

luxury in the air

If you want luxury in the air, you should try booking a first-class flight. If you can afford it, that is.

Airlines have added ridiculous new amenities, especially for international flights. They’re chauffeuring passengers to the gate in limousines and offering cabins with beds, private showers and butler service.

But these airline perks aren’t for you. They’re only available to the elite flyers or the superrich. The rest of us must endure shrinking seats with zero service. Does anyone else think there’s something wrong with this picture?

No one asked for this obscene, if not un-American, division between the “haves” and “have-nots” onboard. Instead, airlines invented a flying caste system that’s embarrassing and offensive to any fair-minded traveler.

Wait, did you ask for these perks?

To get an idea of the extremes to which airlines will go, talk to an expert like Shane Chapman, senior vice president of airline industry relations at Ovation Travel.

“The perks are amazing,” he says.

It starts at a VIP check-in area “away from the chaos in the airport,” says Chapman. Next, you take a separate entrance to a TSA PreCheck area and then go to a club lounge. Some lounges offer hotel-like amenities, including sleeping pods, showers and gourmet meals.

These special passengers never have to walk down a long concourse. They catch a ride to the gate in a Cadillac (American Airlines), Porsche (Delta Air Lines) or a Mercedes (United Airlines).

The on-board experience, particularly on international flights, is just as over the top. Premium passengers have their own cabins, where they’re pampered and overfed, and they sleep on a lie-flat bed. And yes, some aircraft have their own showers. (Domestic flights are a somewhat different matter. There, the class divide isn’t quite as extreme.)

How do you get this luxury in the air? You probably can’t. It’s reserved for the airline’s top customers, who belong to secretive clubs like American’s Concierge Key, Delta’s Diamond 360, and United’s Global Services. Good luck joining – typically, they’re invitation-only.

But maybe a better question is: Who asked for this? The airline passengers I talk to just want a reasonable amount of personal space, the ability to check a bag and maybe a meal on longer flights.

What’s really going on here

Of course, airline passengers aren’t clamoring for showers on planes. Here’s the conventional wisdom: All the luxury cars and first-class lounges are just a marketing ploy designed to lure in the big spenders.

It’s “micro-targeting,” according to Yanni Poulakos, a resident travel consultant for the business travel management app Lola.com. “Think of it as the traveler equivalent of the elite influencers on Instagram,” he says.

At the same time, those “basic” economy steerage class seats that come without checked bags, assigned seats and the ability to make a ticket change represent another kind of micro-targeting. It’s offering the most price-sensitive air travelers an opportunity to fly, he says.

But the conventional wisdom may be wrong. It assumes the folks in the back of the plane asked for a service-free flight or are getting a bargain. But they didn’t – and they aren’t. I know because I hear from them every day at my consumer advocacy site. They want to be treated like valued customers, but they end up paying extra for everything. Plus, at the end of the flight, they sign up for the airline’s addictive frequent flyer credit card, which just ends up getting them into more debt while enriching the airline.

That’s not micro-targeting. It’s more like a bait and switch. It’s as if the airlines are telling economy passengers, “You want to get treated better? Become a member of a loyalty program, and we’ll consider it.”

Not all passengers like this luxury in the air

Passengers with a conscience are a little uncomfortable with this arrangement. Barbara Glavish, a retired occupational therapist from Incline Village, Nevada, saved all of her American Express Rewards points for an amenity-rich flight to France recently. And what a flight it was!

She and her husband used a special check-in desk in Los Angeles. Then an employee escorted the couple through a private security lane. They boarded a luxury car from the lounge to the gate, where the attendants greeted them with a glass of champagne. And, of course, the flight itself was remarkable: Large, comfortable seats, meals served on china, and plenty of personal space.

“It’s ridiculous, the lengths the airlines go to putting in more seats and reducing service for the majority of the traveling public,” she says. “I remember when coach class was like first-class domestic these days.”

Glavish thinks it might be better to start offering all passengers a humane amount of space and service.

That’s an idea no one questioned a generation ago, but now gets laughed at by people who claim to be travel experts. Maybe it’s time to put those experts in one of the tiny economy class seats on a transpacific flight.

If that doesn’t change their mind, nothing will.

These are the most over-the-top airline perks

Emirates A380 First Class experience

It comes with a shower. And not just any shower, but a “Shower Spa.” You can also “feel refreshed” with its exclusive Emirates Private Collection Bvlgari amenity kits. Talk about luxury in the air!

Singapore Airlines SilverKris Lounge

It’s like a “home away from home.” The Singapore lounges feature tastefully selected art pieces, custom-designed productivity pods that let you work in privacy and comfort, and gourmet food and beverages.

Virgin Atlantic Upper Class transfers service

A car to the gate is one thing, but Virgin Atlantic takes it to the next level by offering premium passengers a ride to and from the airport. “You’ll be enjoying the luxury of Upper-Class travel from the second we pick you up, until the moment we get you to your destination,” the airline says. “No stress, no fuss.”

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Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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