Mikhail/Shutterstock

Mikhail/Shutterstock

Whenever an airline introduces new lie-flat seats for its richest customers or makes its “elite” level more elusive by restructuring its loyalty program, as has been happening lately, it sparks a predictable debate about the growing rift between the “haves” and “have-nots” in travel.

Next month, American Airlines will begin flying a new Airbus A321T between New York and San Francisco. It comes with lie-flat seats in the front of the plane and an espresso machine only for first-class customers.

To give members of its Sky Club lounges a “more exclusive experience,” Delta Air Lines in May will start charging a $29 access fee for guests of regular members as a “benefit” of their eligible credit card. Previously, those visits were included in the hefty card price.

Meanwhile, ordinary passengers languish in crowded waiting areas and are wedged into airline seats that seem to shrink between flights. When they complain, they’re often angrily told by disgruntled airline employees that they get what they pay for.

The airline’s highest-spending customers are being lavished with more, while the rest give up their last shred of dignity, such as a humane amount of legroom and seat width or the ability to check a bag without paying extra. If it’s not bolted down in steerage class, there’s a charge for it these days. What’s more, this class conflict is playing itself out across the entire travel industry.

The divide between rich and poor has never been more obvious than in the air. And the airline industry has become quite comfortable with our collective deprivation.

Just ask Alireza Yaghoubi, the chief technology officer at AirGo Design, a company with a clever idea for creating civilized economy-class seats. The technology exists to offer everyone on the plane ample legroom and space to move in coach class. But it would require a significant investment, and he says airlines prefer to sink that money into first-class passengers, who are deemed more valuable.

“Airlines want us to either pay more or go through the same nightmarish experience every time,” says Yaghoubi. “That is a failed strategy which needs to be revised.”

As always, the airline industry is boldly leading the way when it comes to separating the well-heeled from the rest. But make no mistake: The travel industry is following, often enthusiastically. Remember, only a fraction of American travelers fly; the rest drive or use mass transit. Consumer advocate Edward Hasbrouck sees the class war unfolding on the ground in places such as San Francisco, where mass transit can be tedious and unreliable, unless you’re one of the privileged commuters with a ticket on a private express bus.

“There’s a dramatic contrast between waiting for slow, late, overcrowded public transit and the luxury buses, hiding their occupants behind spotless tinted glass, that pick up thousands of moneyed young geeks every day and whisk them off to the Silicon Valley campuses of Google, Facebook and Yahoo,” he says.

Hasbrouck fears a day might come when the class divide will resemble a scene from a dystopian novel. Something like it already exists. In São Paulo, laborers spend hours on overcrowded buses getting to and from work, while the affluent are carried by helicopter from the rooftops of their condo towers to the rooftops of their office towers.

“That,” he adds, “is the most extreme class divide in transportation.”

If you think this sounds like another debate in Washington, you’re not alone. There are several parallels between the discussion about income inequality and inequality for travelers, says Richard Reeves, the policy director for the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families.

No matter the mode of transportation, most travelers understand and accept a class system, or the idea that you can enjoy more amenities, such as a larger room or a more spacious seat, if you pay more. But perhaps a line has been crossed, say experts such as Reeves.

To many travelers, it seems as if those sitting in the front of the plane, staying in the suites, riding the private buses don’t deserve the VIP treatment any more than the rest deserve their misery.

As with the current discussion on income inequality, people become disenchanted when they feel the system is basically unfair.

“That’s when people become much less tolerant,” Reeves says.

Maybe we’re at a tipping point in travel, just as we are with income inequality. The more stratified the travel industry becomes, the further we get from the dignified experience everyone deserves.

In that world, we’d be better off staying home. Let’s not go there.

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