First class. Business class. Economy class. Coach class. In an ostensibly classless society, the airline cabin remains as one of the few spaces in which we allow the social hierarchy to take a visible form. In fact, the airplane is the only context in which many Americans will hear the word class at all—pre-boarding, leather seats and an extra six inches of legroom standing as silent metaphors for elite education, gated subdivisions and all the other privileges of the haute-bourgeoisie.
One might have expected this state of affairs to be disastrous. Bottling up the class war and then periodically releasing it inside of a 10-foot-wide metal tube should by now have resulted in inter-cabin brawls, first-class Pinkerton guards, lavatory barricades—or at least the occasional accidental-on-purpose shin kick during boarding. But instead—nothing.
The coach passengers pass through the first-class cabin and keep their eyes down. They meekly apologize when their suitcases nick a foot or a leg. The first class fidgets and stares into its scotch. Each set seems frankly embarrassed of the other. In sum, they act like Americans do when confronting class in any other sphere: They try to ignore it. In the broader culture, the air-caste system has been subject to tepid satire on Seinfeld and the like, but that’s about it.
At least, such have been my observations. And I believe that the tenuous harmony of the airplane has a great deal to do with the Skymall catalogue.
I’ve been flying back and forth for job interviews lately, and in the past two weeks I’ve spent a cumulative 26 hours in airplanes. (Incidentally, I’m writing this from the Fort Myers airport at a rate of $3 per 10 minutes.) In that time, I’ve read Skymall nearly cover-to-cover. Provided free-of-charge in every seatback pocket, it’s the only reading material available to most passengers; and even if they opt for in-flight magazines or John Grisham books, practically everyone, at some point between takeoff and landing, will spend time flipping through Skymall.
It is a remarkable document: It offers wine- and fruit-of-the-month club memberships, chocolate-fondue fountains, 24-carat-gold-dipped fresh roses, portable gazebos, self-inflating sleeping bags, polyglot electronic-translator pens, skin-softening gloves, talking Abraham Lincoln figurines, the full range of Successories posters, therapeutic ionized bracelets, Andy Warhol rugs, robot vacuums, terra cotta garden hedgehogs in three sizes and, through a special partnership with New Line Cinema, the One Ring, all theoretically purchasable in flight with a call to 1-800-SKYMALL on the seatback phone. I have never seen anyone make such a call.
And there is the rub—because Skymall is not a catalogue at all, but rather an elaborate class-pacification device. The in-flight ordering of luxury baubles is too extravagant for all but the greatest socialites and merchant princes, and they have their own planes. Moreover, Skymall’s prices are often parodoxically high. Take the pool section: Skymall offers the Reclining Pool Chaise for $295, the Pool Shot freestanding basketball hoop for $595 and the 50-inch Deep Swimex Aquatic Exercise Center for $21,900. The men and women capable of such expenditures don’t fly Delta. And even if they did, they certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable making them via seat-phone during the beverage service.
But even if Skymall is essentially a dummy catalogue, it serves two key functions in maintaining the airborne truce. First, it assuages the upper class. Significantly outnumbered, clinging to arbitrary and shrinking privileges, the possible wholesale elimination of their cabin—and the precious opportunity to openly flaunt their status—hanging over their heads, the first class can always turn to Skymall and reassure itself that even if it is not going to buy the Portable Roll-Up Piano, it always could. For the uppers, Skymall is the ultimate class privilege, a constant testament to and reminder of wealth. So the first class sits unthreatened in its leather seats, bearing no ill-will toward coach.
And Skymall prevents coach from rebelling. True, the back of the plane has even less access to glossy luxury than the front. But such is the brilliance of Skymall: If you can’t pay, it removes your desire. Consider the over-excited product blurbs: “Insect Vacuum: Quickly dispose of insects from almost 5 feet away. A 14,000 rpm motor draws insects into a sealed cartridge lined with a non-toxic gel (harmless to humans and pets), that traps and kills insects. With built-in rechargeable battery, two disposable cartridges, two 17-inch extensions for a 54-inch reach, and wall mount.”
Middle-class Joe reads that and thinks, “Imagine the snob who pays $50 for a fancy-pants insect vacuum, when you can flush a bug down the toilet with your bare hands for free. I’m glad I’m not a snob!” And so it is for the rest of Skymall. Blurb after blurb on high-end baubles paint a picture of an upper class that is not just effete and overindulgent, but morally pitiable. Those guys up there in first class, thinks Joe, are nothing more than overgrown children, the poor guys.
The end result is not envy or even anger, but moral superiority. And as Nietzsche so rightly observed, once the lower classes have convinced themselves of their moral superiority, they feel the need for no further action.
Thus it is that Skymall coddles the high and restrains the low. And if it does so through an elaborate apparatus of self-deception, that is the fault of the high and the low, not of the catalogue.
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And if none of the hundreds of thousands of flights leaving American airports each year turn into Paris, 1848, that is to the lasting credit of Skymall, a thing of genius and the work of superior minds, the most significant class-pacification device of our times.
Social harmony: Priceless.
Rob Goodman is a Trinity senior. His column appears Fridays.