The Vanishing Middle Class: Airlines Announce Squatting Class

If you’re a super-wealthy traveler, flying just keeps getting more luxurious. For everyone else, you might soon find yourself with no option but to fly in the new super-budget “Squatting Class” where even the free snacks have been taken away.

Airline consumers accustomed to three seat classes on airplanes – Economy Class, Middle or Business Class, and First Class – are now faced with a shrinking, or even completely absent, Middle Class. While some airlines are clinging to the past paradigm, others are embracing a future where the seating classes are more unequal and ideologically divided than at any other time in aviation history.

“The 5 percent of fliers with the highest incomes now account for 40 percent of airline profits,” said airline industry spokesperson Linda Forester. “For many airlines it only makes economic sense to respond to demand and modernize their seat and in-flight snack offerings to match the economic landscape.”

But critics complain that some airlines are taking things too far by creating the new “Ludicrous Luxury Class” with lavish amenities that only a small percentage of the super-wealthy can afford, and forcing almost everyone else into the new Squatting Class at the back of the plane. In Ludicrous Luxury Class, passengers are treated to super-comfortable seating, more snacks and drinks than they could possibly consume in a single flight, pedicures and adorable hypoallergenic baby animals. Squatting class passengers get no seat, little to hold onto, no overhead bin space and the option to purchase a small packet of snack mix.
“As the gap between classes widens, the prospect of forward mobility for those in Squatting Class becomes increasingly difficult and many simply lose hope of ever getting a free bag of snacks again,” says aviation commentator J.P. Warwick from the nonprofit Bookings Institution travel think tank. “Eighteen percent of consumers are already flying below the economy class, and those that can still afford traditional economy seating are having a harder time finding available seats due to shrinking inventory.”

Flier Jack Thornton on his way home to Ohio with his family from New York’s LaGuardia Airport reflected on the changes he’s seen. “It used to be that a blue collar job would allow you to get married, buy a house, have kids and afford a Middle Class seat,” Thornton said. “Nowadays I can barely afford to squat and buy a bag of Sun Chips for my daughter. Even worse, they aren’t even real Sun Chips.”

Defenders of Ludicrous Luxury Class seating say critics are engaging in unhelpful class warfare and are arguing for airlines to adopt unrealistic policies that kill jobs and border on Socialism.

Bank VP and Ludicrous Luxury flier Preston Prescott sees it this way, “What they’re really arguing for is the unfair redistribution of snacks. I didn’t get into Ludicrous Luxury Class by doing nothing and whining about how unfair life is. Look, at some point the free snacks have to stop. Otherwise, what incentive would anyone have to take personal responsibility and get out there and work for a better seat assignment? I don’t see why I have to subsidize someone else’s packet of Famous Amos mini cookies.”

Despite having higher base ticket costs, a dollar-for-dollar breakdown of Ludicrous Luxury Class benefits shows that passengers in Squatting Class actually pay more for less. To many, providing extra benefits to the super-wealthy seems counterintuitive, but Forester says that by providing a surplus to the Ludicrous Luxury Class airline policies are benefiting Squatting Class through the “trickle-back of snacks and in theory should promote additional Middle Class seat creation in the future.”

Last month, a group of protesters at Oakland International Airport brought the issue of airline class inequality international attention by establishing a makeshift encampment in Ludicrous Luxury class and refusing to move. The standoff with authorities lasted nearly three weeks. Ironically, the resulting airport shutdown only affected other budget travelers as the super-wealthy quickly found other options on private charter jets.

At the time, no one presented themselves as the leader of the protest group, and no coherent demand or organized strategy emerged from the group. When pressed, after five days of subsisting solely on in-flight snack packs and airline beverages, a majority agreed that Cheez-It Snack mix was far superior to Chex Mix, but Planters Honey Roasted Peanuts had more staying power. At day five, no one had yet opened the box of fat-free Snackwells Devil’s Food cookies. “We won’t rule it out completely,” said one protester that declined to give a name, “but if we go there, you’ll know that things have gotten really desperate.”

No solution to the shrinking Middle Class came out of the protest, but it did force many in Congress to sit up and pay attention to the long-ignored issue. While both sides of the aisle agree that a robust Middle Class section benefits all fliers, there’s no consensus on the best approach. Some are pushing for increased taxes and stricter regulation on airline pricing practices, others like conservative Congressman Justin Wagner of Arizona are arguing for a free-market approach.

“In my view, the American dream is alive and well, we just have to get out of the way. If you work hard enough, you too can one day work your way up to Ludicrous Luxury Class.”

“I’m not asking for the moon,” said Thornton as he and his family entered the airport, “I just want to be treated like a human and get a bag of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish now and again.”

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Kimberlykv]