Final Analysis: Putting on Airs

It doesn’t matter if you feel comfortable on a jetliner. You simply need to feel superior to someone else.

My wife and I headed out of town recently for a weekend in Chicago. At the Sea-Tac departure gate, I noticed we were in Boarding Group 2, so I cheerfully assumed we’d get on the aircraft before all the overhead compartments were spoken for.

Full disclosure: I don’t travel as much as I used to, so I wasn’t that familiar with the current pecking order of airplane boarding. Those of you who fly more frequently will recall that it goes something like this:

✔ Parents with small children.

✔ Children with small parents.

✔ Children who will be kicking the seat back of passenger John Levesque for the next four hours.

✔ Anyone needing special assistance.

✔ Anyone needing special assistance kicking the seat back of passenger John Levesque.

✔ Tin, magnesium, silver, gold, platinum and antimony mileage plan members.

✔ Holders of mileage plan American Express cards.

✔ Holders of mileage plan Visa cards.

✔ Holders of mileage plan Mastercard cards.

✔ Holders of next season’s plan for House of Cards.

✔ Passengers assigned to a lowlier boarding group but who are self-important enough to think they should board now.

✔ Passengers with backpacks the size of Delaware.

✔ Passengers wearing pajamas, swimsuits or flip-flops.

✔ Boarding Group 1.

✔ The great unwashed.

✔ Pond scum.

✔ Boarding Group 2.

✔ And so on …

Luckily, there was a Boarding Group 3 on our plane, so my self-esteem remains intact. Take that, you Group 3 social misfits!

But I am under no illusion the airlines care about the welfare of passengers. OK, maybe they don’t want us to die in a fiery crash. But just because they create enough social stratification to grant college credit in Sociology 101 to anyone with a boarding pass, do not be fooled. We are not students and they are not teachers. We are fish. They are canneries. Would you like to be packed in oil, sir, or spring water?

So, I had to laugh when three U.S. Court of Appeals judges in Washington, D.C., recently ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to review seat sizes and legroom on commercial airliners. Because you just know the FAA is going to roll over, jump through a hoop and tell the airlines to grant us more space.

The airlines already offer bigger seats and more legroom. Passengers who want to uncoil simply have to pay extra for it. The well-heeled also get to breathe air that doesn’t smell as if it was shipped in from a boys’ locker room. The rest of us remain in our upright and locked positions for the duration of the flight sucking air that just arrived from Memphis. And we will like it!

The caste system in travel has been around for centuries. Airlines have merely refined the practice to make as many people as possible feel they’ve got it worse than the guy up front, but still better than some poor schlub behind them. No, ma’am. You may not have the whole can of Coke. You have not accrued enough miles. However, if you sign up for our mileage plan credit card, the 50,000 free miles will get you closer to that can.

Different airlines have slightly different procedures, of course, but rest assured that it is our discomfort they wish to heighten. For if we feel uncomfortable, inconvenienced or otherwise slighted, we just might pony up enough cash to improve our sorry conditions — and their bottom lines. 

JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Reach him at

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