Greetings from Lima, Peru, from a hotel room conveniently situated exactly 5 minutes walk across from the baggage claims and customs declaration area at the airport. Yes, once again, I’m on one of those ludicrous professional (mis)adventures where you spend more time in high-pressurised cabins and air-conditioned airport terminals than you spend at your destination. By Friday, I’ll have taken four flights, each to a different country in an absurd South African dance known as Avoiding-The-USA-Because-They’re-So-Damned-Sticky-
About-Awarding-Transit-Visas. This dance only seems complicated until you come across its not so distant cousin, attempting-to-Connect-via-The-USA-Although-They’re-So-
I didn’t have time for the second dance, so I’m caught up in the first one. Blessings and gratitude to my publisher, though, who’s sent me business class (by mistake, I suspect, but he still deserves blessings and gratitude for this).
Now the lovely thing about traveling business class is not that it’s marvelously luxurious. Actually, it’s not. I mean, yes, stretching out in fully reclining business class seats makes a trip a whole heap less stressful than cramming into economy class pigeonholes. (And, yes, I was charmed by my little personal salt and pepper shakers, each with a tiny stopper on top. Not quite Alessi, but not far off, for an airline meal.) No, the real luxury of business class is all about the myth of luxury.
Luxury is a relative notion. Relative to the norm. And on aeroplanes, the norm is so dire that the more luxuriant classes (business, first, whatever code names they give it) makes you feel special. You feel pampered and privileged when they serve lunch on real crockery, and the food has actual taste and texture. These are things you’d take for granted in the most basic cafeteria. But airlines have gotten us so used to plastic plates, fridge-hard (or microwave-overheated) food, brusque treatment and minimal leg room that a little bit of fresh and spacious goes a long way. You feel like royalty when the staff treat you like someone doing very big business with them. But the truth is that all those economy class tickets are the biggest part of their big business. All the people behind the snootily whipped-across curtain that separates the stretchy business-class section from the piled-in economy barracks behind – they’re the ones keeping the airline afloat. (Well, maybe afloat is the wrong word to use in relation to an aeroplane. But you know what I mean.)
Now I could interpret this in a couple of different ways. For one thing, I could use the experience to remind myself that things just feel better all round when we don’t take them for granted. But I’m not Oprah, and I know you can figure that out for yourself. Anway, like I said already, that scale of luxury is so, so relative.
This time, the experience got me thinking about the myth of class. Human beings love to differentiate themselves from each other. We live in an age of overzealous individualism, caught in a weird cycle between wanting to be unique, and wanting to belong to our own (er, special, unique) group. But nowhere is this undermined quite as radically as at the airport, where you are a generic body, labelled with passport number and ticket number, shunted along various conveyer belts til you’re transported to your destination. With the material evidence of your daily requirements folded into a suitcase that, let’s face it, looks much like every other suitcase there. Open up any suitcase there, and you’ll find that your collection of jeans and jackets and mobile phone charger and iPod and underwear don’t look all that different to the next one. And yet, we’re each special and individually unique, we know it. Which makes the airport experience disturbing. We know it, and more importantly, the airline companies know it.
So what do they offer? They offer you a range of ways to buy into an idea of class. You can do it at duty-free (and in a telling typo, that almost read beauty-free): you can buy radically expensive branded items that’ll let you associate yourself with the rarefied air of glamour and celebrity and international allure that hovers mysteriously and invisibly over international terminals. You can do it by purchasing first or business class tickets that’ll let you into special lounges, give you special treatment. Extra leg room, liqueurs, those cute salt and pepper shakers (I really liked them!) Comfy, sure, and I’m not knocking it. The extra comfort has made the difference between a near-unbearable trip and one that’s downright pleasant.
Here’s the crunch, though. When you get wherever you’re going, you’re going to be glad to be there, or not. You’re going to be looking forward to going home again, or not, depending on how your life is right now. What will change after these few hours of flying? Little, it seems to me. And that hovering air of glamour and class that’s promised in their plush lounges – it’s nothing but OTT trimming on an oversized waiting room. I’m having a wonderfully easy trip, I guess I’m saying. But the most exciting part of it is that in a week’s time I’ll be on my way home, where the salt and pepper isn’t individually packed.
[*The dance goes like this: you need to go somewhere relatively near to America, about two weeks from now. The most sensible route is to fly to Miami and connect to your destination. Then you remember that you have a South African passport. You go to the US Embassy’s website and discover that the Americans require you to get a transit visa. To arrange this, they require you to go to Pick N Pay and buy a $10-voucher. The voucher entitles you to 9 minutes on the phone to a consultant at the US embassy. During this 9 minutes you must book a compulsory personal interview at the embassy. The interview schedule is generally backed up 1 to 3 months in advance. If you go over 9 minutes, go back to Pick N Pay for a new visa. And start again. If you get the appointment arranged, you can go to the embassy in a month or two, along with a pile of admin: bank statements, hotel bookings, fully paid-for plane tickets. Then they need 14 working days to process your visa. And all this just to go in transit…]