'Preferred Treatment' Fosters a New Elite

It is a busy Sunday at O'Hare, and the flight to Boston is crowded. I am wedged in a middle seat - 7E. To my right, the man in 7F - call him Mr. Window - casually drapes his elbow over our shared armrest and spreads his newspaper into "my" space. To my left, the man in 7D - Mr. Aisle - has claimed ownership of the other armrest, his elbow jutting out as he taps away on his gray laptop.

I feel like the cream in an Oreo, the tuna sandwiched between two slices of bread.

Like most airline passengers, I've had my share of middle seats over the years. But for a fleeting moment this time, I thought perhaps those days might be over. Why? Because the airline recently sent a letter explaining that I've logged enough miles in the past year, shuttling between Boston and the Midwest for family reasons, to qualify for its "premier" level. Flattery abounds as the airline outlines the "special privileges and rewards" that go with this "elevated status."

"You can expect preferential service everywhere you fly," it promises. Along with upgrades and other benefits, this "preferred treatment" includes premier seating: "When you choose a window or an aisle seat, we will also do our best to place you next to an empty middle seat when space permits."

Not today, obviously. Still, despite my squeezed status in 7E, I wonder: Am I really more entitled to a coveted window or aisle, space permitting, than the young mother in the middle seat behind me, who must balance a wriggling baby on her lap for two hours? Not necessarily.

Like restaurants reserving their best tables for faithful patrons, airlines know it's good business to reward frequent fliers for their loyalty. What customer doesn't like special treatment?

At the same time, perks like these are helping to create a fascinating new elitism that has nothing to do with traditional class distinctions based on wealth and background. Call it the Age of Entitlement - a new form of Us versus Them, manifesting itself in inflated importance and a better-than-thou attitude based on nothing more substantial, in this case, than a stack of used airline tickets.

This new elitism also extends to credit cards. Gone are the days when flashing a gold card represented the ultimate status. Today the standard is platinum. But even that has become laughably common as mass mailings offer "preapproved" platinum to everyone but the family cat.

What will credit-card companies do to promote the next level of artificial snobbery - the next upgrade?

As the desire for entitlements and upgrades increases among the middle class, perks of any kind remain largely a dream for those far lower on the economic ladder. The gulf between those in business class, or even premier class, and those consigned to what author Robert Kaplan calls the "Greyhound underclass" grows wider by the day. Where is the "preferred treatment" for poor mothers and their children, for instance, as lawmakers reduce benefits - once called entitlements - such as food stamps?

In a country where celebrity has become the new aristocracy, pretenders to the throne abound. But as one small reality check, it might not be a bad idea if privileged executives and politicians squeezed themselves now and then into a middle seat. Humble pie could be a perfect accompaniment to the foil packets of pretzels that pass for a meal at 35,000 feet.

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