Monday, April 27, 2009

Flying Business Class: My New Travel Habit?

By virtue of my role as a consumer educator, I travel a lot. These days, with some additional family responsibilities in New Jersey, I am on a train or turnpike even more than usual. So perhaps I can be forgiven for splurge on a recent Airtran flight from Atlanta to Washington, when I purchased an upgrade to business class…except that I can’t seem to shake the shame of it. Well, “shame” is a strong word, but what I can’t seem to get out of the back of my head is how easily I settled into my new role as “business class passenger.” I am privileged to even have access to air flight when so many travelers in the majority world are confined to bicycles or rickshaws or stuck in cramped converted school buses. Yet after one flight, I start having a “I could get used to this” response.

Of course, everybody deserves a little indulgence, and I don’t want to make too big a deal over a $49 splurge. For the record, the upgrade wiped out my baggage fee and entitled me to a free cocktail and extra-special snacks that replaced my buying lunch. But the word that trips me up is “entitled.” Because I had the money for an impulse purchase (“Sure Mr. Ticket Taker, swipe my Visa for an upgrade!) I got to leap-frog the hundred or so other people I am usually hanging out with back in coach class. While they were shoving over-stuffed bags into the over-head bin, a flight attendant was calling me by name to interest me in a free pre-flight beverage (in my favorite flavor of mango), all because I could afford 50 extra bucks.

To make matters worse, in the course of a one hour and 10 minute flight, I got used to the conditions, eagerly anticipating my speedy exit from row 3, instead of hunkering down for the long, slow slog from the back of the jet. When I was in the air terminal, I took new notice of the “Fly Clear” security system, where you can pay an annual fee to breeze through security. Having that momentary daydream is when I knew something was going wrong. I have been opposed to the idea that the wealthy can avoid the inconveniences of national security by paying for special screening. What was going on with me? After one single swanky flight, I am thinking about purchasing a security clearance? What kind of “conscious consumer” am I? Talk about a slippery slope.

I was given a little relief from this guilt trip by an article in yesterday’s New York Times by David Segal, “No, You Can’t Get an Upgrade.” As a former student of sociology, I was reminded of the force of culture in a person’s behavior. Segal describes Americans as “epic consumers” and notes that our desire for “bigger and better’ is “…so neatly woven into the double helix of our DNA that we hardly notice it. When we buy a television, it’s rarely because we lack a TV. We want a thinner TV, or a bigger TV, or a TV with features that sound beguiling even if we have no idea what they do.” Well, that explains it! My desire to have more for the sake of a few creature comforts was part of my cultural training. Certainly it makes sense that some of my greedier instincts and not so admirable impulses started kicking in once I indulged.

The article served as a good reminder to me. As I try to take this economic crisis as a time of encouraging fellow traders to reassess and recalibrate consumption, I don’t want to disregard the very real pulls we feel toward a certain way of life or standard of living. I don’t want to suggest that sacrifice or down-sizing is easy, even in the name of simplicity. I certainly don’t want to suggest I have it all figured out or that my way is some holier-than-thou approach. I want to reclaim the American dream, not trash it.

Last week I acted like so many good Americans—maybe I even helped stimulate the economy—by consuming more than I needed. And I re-learned a lesson about what I really value and why. Perhaps it was worth the $49 after all.

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