words Marcus Fairs
Nothing hurts like status lost. If an upgrade is a privilege, an honour, a recognition that you alone among hundreds of airline passengers are deserving of enhanced comfort and care – then what is a downgrade?
At the hands of Virgin Atlantic it is a humiliation. It goes like this: your name is discreetly called over the tannoy at the fabulous Upper Class lounge at Heathrow, designed by London-based architect Softroom. Here you are enjoying a complimentary cooked breakfast and fancy juice, using REAL cutlery rather than wobbly plastic implements and considering the free haircut and massage options. You make your way to a desk where an Amazonian stewardess type with a severe bun smiles sweetly from behind her make-up and regretfully informs you that Upper Class is oversold, dreadfully sorry, you will be travelling in Premium Economy today.
And simultaneously, with the sleight of hand of a party magician, she has relieved me of my precious purple Upper Class boarding pass and is RIPPING IT UP in front of me, her smile never faltering as she shreds it into ever-smaller fragments and – horror! – produces a new boarding pass in RED. Plain red, proletarian red, limited legroom red, red who turns right on boarding rather than left, red who will no longer cruise across the Atlantic in a Pearson Lloyd-designed lie-flat bed, will no longer order individually cooked dishes from a sumptuous menu; will no longer be showered with attention and fine wines and Ozwald Boateng skincare product samplers.
And as this happens my self-esteem takes a hammer blow, and whereas an hour earlier I entered the lounge and felt part of an elite club, I now feel like an imposter, and the smiles of Virgin’s over-groomed minions seem now to conceal sneers.
Nobody really talks about class envy any more, expect in connection with flying. Airlines have been busily converting the front ends of their jets into zones of extraordinary privilege that, together with fast-track check-ins and opulent in-terminal lounges, have created an airborne caste system. And for those without the cash, the expense account or the celebrity status to merit an automatic pass to airline aristocracy, there remains always the hope of an upgrade.
The left-turners who head fore rather than aft when they board long-haul flights are a social and economic class as distinct as the apocryphal Peninsula & Orient steamship passengers who travelled Port Out, Starboard Home to the colonies to ensure their cabins avoided the full blast of the sun, and whose tickets were therefore stamped “POSH”. Today’s business- class cabins increasingly resemble flying gentlemen’s clubs. The unfortunate right turners, meanwhile, are gradually being stripped of legroom, in-flight meals and even free alcohol. Orient Express to the left, veal crate to the right.
The notion of travel as a glamorous undertaking looked to have died out with the demise of Concorde, with its high-octane ticket prices, and the rise of low-cost carriers such as Easyjet and Ryan Air, whose offering is classless in both senses of the word. With a return to Marrakech available for under £70, the jetset were beginning to look like an endangered species.
But the relatively recent invention of airline seats that convert into flat beds has stopped the rapid democratisation of air travel in its tracks. Virgin Atlantic has gone further than any other carrier to stigmatise passengers according to the part of the aircraft they travel in: when boarding their wide-bodied jets, every lower-class passenger has to pass the gorgeous bar (also designed by Softroom), beautifully lit in blue and pink, tended by gorgeous people and groaning with Champagne, that is for the exclusive use of Upper Class passengers.
And this is the bar that I can see now, from Premium Economy, from where I have a front-row view of the free cocktails I cannot consume, the magazines I cannot read and the glamorous masseuse I cannot call upon.
To be fair, Virgin, who wanted me to enjoy the complete Upper Class experience so that I might write about it, did advise me that my upgrade was “space available” – meaning that I would be dumped out if enough paying passengers turned up. I was assured at the moment of my humiliation that my upgrade status was high and that I should definitely get the full Upper Class monty on the return leg (which I did – and it was fabulous).
But the real indignation was still to come. As I queued at the gate with my newly issued red pass, the suit in front of me was upgraded from Premium Economy to Upper Class. Bastard! That was MY seat! It was too much, and I complained loudly: I get downgraded due to lack of space, and then this guy gets upgraded. WHY? The uniformed lady’s reply was just three words, but said everything about the status gulf between us. “Gold card holder,” she whispered.