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March 07, 2006


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The Wife and I are once again visiting California. We flew out from New York City Business Class. The last time we flew out we flew Business too. The time before as well. Ain't we fancy.

In fact, we're scrounging, just-getting-by, middle-class people who have to watch the bottom line more closely than we'd like to. But we're typical of middle-class people in another way too. Over the years, we have managed to pile up hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles. What to do with them?

As far as I can tell, every U.S. airline company is going to go out of business sometimes within the next 12 months; we wouldn't want to simply lose our miles. Yet whenever we have tried to use our miles to pay for tickets, we've been completely stymied. Oh, sure, we can use our miles to buy plane tickets to places we want to visit -- provided only that we let the plane company pick which one, that we're willing to commit to an intinerary three years ahead of time, that we don't mind flying on Thursday afternoon, and that we aren't put off by the idea of taking prop planes that make seven stops to get from Cleveland to Chicago.

Our solution to this dilemma is to use our miles for upgrades. We book our usual flights, then tell the agent to use our miles to put us in Business. This isn't a perfect solution. We still need to book well ahead of time. And we've sometimes had to take a slightly earlier or later flight than we'd have preferred. But we're at least getting some utility out of our miles.

Not the least of the pleasures of flying Business is the entertainment factor. I'm not talking about the in-flight movies, which are as bad in Business as what's shown to the losers back in Economy. Though, come to think of it, Business passengers are at least spared "Everybody Loves Raymond" -- reason enough to spring for an upgrade.

For me, what's most entertaining about flying Business is the way language changes. Shell out a certain amount of money (or at least miles), and you enter a realm where sentences and phrases that might be simple and to-the-point become hushed, circumlocutious, and elaborately discreet. I have one well-off acquaintance who refers -- straight-facedly-- to rich people as "high net-worth individuals." That's the kind of language-thing that is forever going on in Business, which does its best to mimic the kind of snobby country club you'd be crazy to want to belong to -- the kind of place where you wouldn't be surprised to hear a drive in a car referred to as "a motoring experience," or a pen as a "writing instrument."

Here's how the menu on our most recent flight described one of the breakfast dishes on offer:

Cheese and Vegetable Omelette
Seasonal Fruit Appetizer
Cheese Omelette filled with Vegetables, enhanced by a fire-roasted Pepper Sauce served with Basil-Pesto Potato Wedges and roasted Turkey Sausage.

What's with some of those capital letters? Is it a ... Business thang?

The toffs flying Business on American are even given copies of their very own magazine: CL, Celebrated Living ("The Luxury Magazine for American Airlines Premium Class Passengers"). Hoo-baby! If that don't me feel like dancin' the boogaloo! Oh, sorry: Why, Muffy, a magazine that respects how refined and special we are!

To be fair, CL isn't quite the hoot-and-a-half exercise in flamboyantly hushed elegance that you might hope. But it still delivers some giggle-over-it language pleasures anyway. Here are a few passages from the magazine's editorial content that especially appealed to me. Emphases added for the pure joy of it:

  • As the former creative director of industry leader Brown Jordan, Richard Frinier is often credited with being the spirit of the luxury outdoor leisure furniture business.

  • When Design Within Reach began in 1998, the retailer wanted to provide easy access to well-designed modern furnishings and accessories traditionally found only in designer showrooms.

  • People should approach an outdoor space as they approach their indoor living spaces. Develop each space to maximize and enhance the features of your natural and architectural surroundings.

  • The 10 signature golf courses bear design credits from familiar names like Norman and Nicklaus.

  • The Inka quickly transforms from a short quick-use pen to a full-size writing instrument.

  • The new tower also features a state-of-the-art health club, a glassed-in outdoor swimming pool, and a CHI Spa specializing in ancient Chinese healing traditions. Be sure to try the signature Himalayan Healing Stone massage.

  • Brown's, one of London's most storied hotels, has reopened after a major renovation by the Rocco Forte Hotel Group.

  • The Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, just an hour from Puerto Vallarta, is one of Mexico's most elegant properties.

  • Elegant and seductive Woodford Reserve ($30) is a reference small-batch bourbon with enticing vanilla tones.

  • Boats are purpose-built machines meant to match their owners' desires.

  • The distinction between function and fashion has always been a matter of record at Dunhill.

I adore the overeager groveling in this kind of language. It's the language of employees in tony jewelry stores, or of long-term, eager-to-serve butlers.

My favorite passage in the magazine is the lead paragraph from an article about, inevitably, super-expensive wristwatches. Hats off to James Malcolmson for this beauty, every word of which strikes me as perfectly-chosen and immaculately-placed.

  • One of the most satisfying parts of any sporting activity has to be equipment fetish, including the right wristwatch. The best designs offer specialized engineering and are so functional that they might be considered an unfair advantage. Their style is a constant reminder of your sporting life, whether you're reaching for a new record, or simply reaching across the dinner table.

Va-va voom and oo-la-la!

Incidentally, I'm not laughing at the magazine's writers or editors. Hey, writers and editors gotta make a living too. I'm also not about to diss flying Business. I've been surprised by how much of a difference flying Business cross-country can make. What a civilized, humane way to travel. You sweep through check-in and inspection in seconds. The Business section is almost always free of screaming kids. Seats are large and acres apart, which means not just that you can stretch out and doze in comfort but that your seat never gets bumped or joggled. The food is good, and ever-more good wine keeps magically refilling your wine glass. (And the wine glass itself is made of glass.) At the end of a cross-country flight on Business, The Wife and I are in far better shape than when we fly Economy. Gathering up our luggage and driving off, we're unhassled, even refreshed. No wonder the rich often look far more calm than the rest of us do.

No, what I'm laughing at is the idea that anyone -- even people who fly Business -- would want to be treated in this absurdly pretentious, asslicking way. Two questions, though? What on earth is a "reference bourbon"? And what is it with high net-worth individuals and crazy-expensive wristwatches anyway?



posted by Michael at March 7, 2006


I've only flown business class once in my life (thankfully on a 10 hour flight to South Africa), and it's true, they *do* live differently.

Sadly, I don't think I impressed the passenger beside me. We started off being offered what I thought was orange juice or apple juice (I hadn't heard the attendant, only saw the tray being offered). I also failed to notice the bubbles in the 'apple juice' and being thirsty, took a big gulp.

Luckily, in Business Class they offer you as many free towels as you need after you almost cough the champagne onto the seat in front of you.

The guy beside me was *real* impressed. At least he didn't try to speak to me for the rest of the trip.

On the other hand, he might have come in useful after I'd experimented with the 350 controls that move the seat in every possible configuration, and got it stuck in some position that felt like my knees should have articulated the other direction.

After that the attendants helped straighten the chair up (although in my defence, it took her a minute to figure out what I had done), I think the attendants realized I wasn't one of "them". Thankfully all you need for business class is money (in my case, some elses), not class.

However, I do have one question. There were maybe 4 or 8 first class seats on the flight. After seeing every possible amenity being offered in business class, I couldn't help but wonder "What the heck do they offer first class passengers?" Solid gold cutlery?

Posted by: Tom West on March 7, 2006 06:44 AM

I don't mean to change the subject, but I am really suprised (maybe I am not) that not one person commented on your iSteve posting. I wonder if people were not commenting because they were not donating, or they were just scared to say anything about Steve Sailer, who talks insightfully with some very difficult subjects?

Posted by: Ian Lewis on March 7, 2006 07:13 AM

As far as I'm concerned, whenever I fly anywhere I choose among three airlines:

1. Southwest
2. Southwest
3. Southwest.

It is the only airline worth flying, IMO. And it seems to be able to make nice profits when all the other airlines are losing money.

Posted by: Peter on March 7, 2006 09:55 AM

All the "aspirational" magazines and TV shows use that faux high falutin language--both in editorial and advertising. On the home makeover shows they're always discussing living "spaces" and they don't redo the floors but replace the "flooring." When they rip out the kitchen cabinets they replace them with "cabinetry." And, of course, they live not in a house but in a home. The most egregious case I've heard/seen are car ads for cars that have not seats but "leather seating services."

It calls to mind Nancy Mitford's list of U and Non-U words, for example people who say drapes or drapery for curtains. Such language is most definitely non-U.

Posted by: Rachel on March 7, 2006 09:58 AM

Matter of habit and comprehension, I guess.

I use "volume", "space", "area" and "cabinetry"(even worse, Rachel, I'd rather say "millwork") routinely and can't imagine mistaking "flooring" with floors.

Ont the other hand, I visited Pilates class yesterday (mostly because I heard so much about its magic from you, Michael!) and left with a headache and angry with myself for being absolutely clueless. I'll quote from the booklet I's given:
-The mindfull physicality of this work frees and enhances our mental capabilities.
- Trainers who did not expose themselves to enough experiences in Health and Fitness have not yet fully experienced most of the pitfalls of training the Human Machine.
- all-encompassing breathing techniques will strenghten the body as well as the mind.

In the class, it was worse. I was given direction, as one of the exercises, while lying prostrated on the mat, to "center your inner core and clear your mind from negative influences of the outside world".

What's worse, girls around me were dead serious and looked satisfied as if they just followed that direction to the t.

Posted by: Tatyana on March 7, 2006 10:43 AM

I'm not sure what's more ludicrous: the New Age blather of Pilates and yoga, or the Deep Asian Mysticism of many martial arts.

Posted by: Peter on March 7, 2006 10:56 AM

-Some of the blather is marketing bullshit and some of it is just bad writing. What I want to know is what percentage of customers in biz/1st class is people who don't care about money and what percentage is people on upgrades who think the other passengers paid full-fare. I'll bet it's a high percentage of upgraders, because what else can you use the miles for.

-I like Southwest too. More reliable, less bullshit. Even their frequent-flyer program works better (at the cost of your flight credit's expiring within a year, which seems a reasonable tradeoff for being able to book an actual flight with it).

-I think that a significant percentage of participants in many leisure activities, particularly here in the gearhead USA (and I say this as a gearhead), are in it for the toys at least as much as for the activity. Nothing wrong with that as long as gearheads and anti-gearheads in each hobby recognize that their respective groups may have different agendas.

Posted by: Jonathan on March 7, 2006 11:19 AM

Sorry...I was sipping reference bourbon and reviewing my wrist timepiece, while deciding which flooring to use in my living space. I'll explore my BMW driving experience later, while getting some cardio work done. What was your point?

Posted by: annette on March 7, 2006 11:21 AM

You want to talk marketing language? Pick up a copy of Coldwater Creek catalogue (women's clothing) simply for the bizarre and endlessly entertaining product descriptions.

A direct quote, I shit you not, regarding one particularly hideous, flowered polyester blouse:

"...Outlined on black so diaphanous its very substance seems a mirage, the exotics on this gently shaped shirt are sequin-dotted and highlighted with lustrous embroidery. Polyester."

I wish the ad copywriter for this catalogue would write a book just like this. Instant classic.

Posted by: Peggy Nature on March 7, 2006 12:37 PM

Isn't it possible that the businessman/woman in business class is just as much a captive of the inflated language available to him/her as the rest of us are of the language available to us when we pick up whatever magazine's on hand in a doctor's office or a barber shop/beauty parlor? In other words: does the businessman necessarily buy into such language? Or is he just as much of a helpless-put-upon-shtup-of-a-consumer/victim as the rest of us? Whew!

Posted by: ricpic on March 7, 2006 12:46 PM

I travel business, where possible, solely because the increased size of the seats and increased legroom, because I am, ahem, somewhat oversized myself. (My fellow customers are glad that I do this, whether or not they are aware of my valiant sacrifice.) I fly business class using miles, because my company pays for a lot of travel.

As for gen-u-ine first class, the only place I think that really exists is on international flights. My wife and one of our daughters flew first class on Swiss Air to Europe a couple years ago (still using miles, BTW) to celebrate a birthday, and that was definitely entertaining--seats that actually lie down flat, pretty darn good food and Swiss chocolates. First class on standard American carriers is indistinguishable from business, as far as I can discern. (I'm sure there are distinctions, they just don't exactly linger in the memory.)

The scary thing about the mindless consumerism on display in airline magazines is to talk to some of my daughter's high school classmates and to realize that they take what they wear, where they eat, where they get into college and how much money they plan on making very, very seriously. Yikes!

MB: Small question--how exactly does this crass American materialism differ from the French luxe, calm et volupte that you extol regularly? Isn't this pretty much as close as the average American is every going to come to the same religion of self-pampering that the French and Italians have raised to a fine art? Are you objecting to the lack of finesse with which it is marketed, or to the underlying phenomenon itself? (As you know, I say this just to justify my role in our relationship as the perpetual stern-minded puritan, perpetually pointing to the skull in my left hand and recommending urgent sackcloth and ashes. Repent, repent, the Day is near!)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 7, 2006 12:49 PM

Actually (anyone notice I tend to over-use the word "actually"?) .

As I was about to say before being rudely interrupted, actually some airlines are heading into the black. One of them is Alaska, whose financial health probably is 90% due to Yours Truly and his frequent flying to California.

Trouble is, Seattle-San Jose r/t miles are far outstipped by your New York-LAX miles so I'm still nicely under 200K after 3 years in Alaska's program. And I haven't faced the cash-in problem. My idea was to expend them on some Europe flights (on American). But you've got me wondering about using them for upgrades to Europe, where 9 or so hours in coach seating can become almost painful. Sadly, I probably can only use my Alaska miles on American for the flight itself, not upgrades -- but I'll check it out.

The wristwatch thing is interesting. Many fancy publications (demographics-wise) from the Financial Times to Automobiles Classiques are filled with ads for watches in the four- to five-digit dollar range. Who buys all those watches? Not being rich, it's hard to imagine somebody having multiple Breitlings, but it must be so. As for me, I'm very pleased with the Swiss Army brand: not costly, rugged, and keeps good time so long as the battery holds out.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 7, 2006 01:15 PM

Having seen the business class section on long-haul flights — just passing through, you understand, on my way to cattle class — with its seating/sleeping pods whose adjustment controls look half as complex as the cockpit avionics, I too have wondered what further luxe could be on offer in the sanctum sanctorum of First.

Masseuses trained in the traditions of the harems of Rajahstan? Your own personal chef to prepare your meals at your side? Forty-seven year old single malt from a distillery operated by a sect of silent, black-hooded monks on an 0.5 square mile island 30 leagues north of Islay? "I say, puff of the pipe, old boy?"

Maybe, but I imagine the tangible differences are minor. You just get even more, er, respect.

"Good evening, your Excellence and Excellencess. I am Severin, your servant for this far-reaching aerodynamic journey. In preparation for the commencement of your aleatory experience, may I invite you to take full advantage of the leading edge device, Your Safety Belt, expressly designed to offer you an unprecedented degree of security in case there is any unanticipated (I assure you, completely unanticipated!) complication during the course of our becoming liberated from the bonds of Earth. Once we have reached an exquisite cruising altitude and our chef de pilotage has diminished the intensity of the sign provided for your awareness, you are free to get up, should that be your wish, and move in any direction you choose throughout the Fulfillment Space we have reserved for you and your fellow guests."

Posted by: Rick Darby on March 7, 2006 01:24 PM

About a decade ago I flatly decided I would never fly again. Period. So far I've not be overwhelmed by the necessity of getting somewhere fast.

But this "culture" of the airplane certainly is in evidence on my spam which considers the key to the world to be: stock options, a fancy wristwatch, and a great big stiff penis. All described in elegant language, though someone somewhere (probably in a foreign country) once spelled "rates" without the e, so that (since these all use each other for reference) I'm regularly offered "good rats," "incredible rats," and "personal rats," which sound rather alarming.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 7, 2006 01:36 PM

American culture, in both its strengths and weaknesses, is characteristically working class. So our "wealth-style" has been characteristically nouveau riche, which is the working class way of being rich. As for the difference between us and French/Italian wealth-styles: there is pompousity there too, but the French etc. have been very good at inventing genuinely new human pleasures that really do take a lot of money to fully indulge. Their cuisine being the major example, but also high fashion, etc. These have trickled down into their bourgeois culture, so the popularly acessible culture in France has a real touch of the genuinely exotic and aristocratic, while the "elite" culture in the U.S. has a touch of the crass popular feel to it (all the good stuff about American popular culture, which there is much of, tends to get lost when one tries to make it elite). In contrast French pop culture is real junk compared to the U.S. That's my theory, anyway.

I totally concur with MB about how hilarious the rhetoric of marketing to the wealthy can be. I suspect that the *truly* wealthy have a whole other layer of pleasures that we have no access to at all, not even the marketing for it. Business class would be high upper middle class, not really super rich.

Posted by: MQ on March 7, 2006 01:41 PM

You really need to try business and first in Asian airlines. Regular coach on EVA provides food that is usually superior to Domestic Business class. First Class on Singapore Airlines on a long haul will remind you of the legendary days of decades ago when tickets were pricey and the hoi-polloi didn't fly at all. And in general, staff on the major Asian airlines are more efficient, better trained, more deferential, and simply less "visually challenged" than the union holdovers on American or United.

Posted by: nn on March 7, 2006 03:23 PM

I agree with MQ - those ads are aimed at the upper-middle. Lower-middle and working classes would laugh at the idea of paying five figures for a watch, and the genuine rich have their OWN planes...

Posted by: tschafer on March 7, 2006 03:41 PM

nn -
One way in which the Asian airlines keep their female flight attendants from being "visually challenging" is by firing them once they hit age 30 or so. That would never happen on a U.S. airline, what with our laws against age discrimination. As of a few months ago Delta had a flight attendant in her early 80's.

Posted by: Peter on March 7, 2006 03:50 PM

I have 150,000 American miles. I get them from Citibank, Holiday Inn, special offers from T-Mobile, etc.

I used to use them for trans-Atlantic flights, where the upgrade to business leaves one a lot more relaxed at the other, jet-lagged end. Rome to Chicago, for example, is 10 hours. Plus you check in in a quarter the time and have no problem with baggage weight.

The problem now is that American has changed the deal, so the miles aren't worth much. And since I don't actually fly much, I don't have anything like Platinum status.

I've recently had two job interviews in London. For one, the company paid $1,600 for a coach seat: flying home, there was not an empty seat on the plane, and I sat next to a family with 2 babies.

Flying over the next time, the flight was again 100% full in coach. This time I sat in the middle seat of 5. Yum.

Why didn't I upgrade? Because it's now something like 25,000 miles per flight, PLUS $250 per flight, PLUS $100 for doing it at the last minute. $700 plus 50,000 miles to upgrade a flight that already cost $1,600? Gee, thanks American.

Posted by: john massengale on March 7, 2006 04:09 PM

Peggy Hature---It's the "polyester" tag line that truly makes that hilarious.

Posted by: annette on March 7, 2006 05:42 PM

Being a cheapskate tightwad kind of guy, I never fly anything but coach anyway. Having an aisle seat is luxury enough for me. (I have learned the hard way to NEVER accept the third seat in of the center section on trans-Atlantic flights.)

On the other hand...about a dozen years ago, I was in Copenhagen with a need to go Nuremberg the next day. I had been planning to take the train for cheapssake, but at the last moment my nerve failed at the prospect of about 13 hours overnight in a train compartment, foldy-downy bed thingies or not. So I hightailed it over to the Lufthansa office and booked a flight.

I. Paid. Through. The. Nose. A one-way intra-European flight booked the day before cost me more than the round-trip trans-Atlantic airfare did. But somehow in those circumstances, I ended up with what amounted to Business Class. The actual flight wasn't really special, other than being seated somewhere with generious legroom, but for once I got to wait in the relative luxury of the Business Lounge at the Copenhagen Airport, unlike the hoi polloi outside. Now that was something I could get to like. Soft, comfortable chairs to sink into while reading a good book, hushed voices unlike the loud main concourse... I particularly remember the ultra-delicious complementary pastries. Too bad I couldn't make it a regular habit.

Paul Fussell's book CLASS has a lot of malicious fun with commercial appeals to class consciousness, and even includes a sample airline menu similar to the one Micheal quotes. As I recall, the appeal isn't to actual members of the uppah clahss -- they're somewhere else and don't normally associate in your circles anyway. The appeal is to middle-class strivers wanting to feel like they've bought a piece of the upper-class dream at least for a moment. Fussell's book was published in the Reagan administration and may be a bit dated, and it has its questionable conceits (Fussell denies the existence of a lower middle class, which wipes me off the map; refers to what anyone else would consider upper class as the upper middle class, apparently holding that only Old Money is the true upper class but in effect making the concept of middle class extend so far into the zone of great wealth as to be useless for categorization; and the chapter on Class X, the free-thinking and non-conventional people who have broken out of the phony class system entirely, is smug and self-congratulatory back-patting for intellectuals like the Author), but it touches amusingly many of the same points Michael is on about.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on March 7, 2006 08:08 PM

Thanks to Dwight for stealing my thunder! I was reading this comment thread and just itching to mention Fussell, but he's very neatly beat me to it. And he's right on, except for one little quibble: Fussell would say that all this marketing language is aimed squarely at the right-dead-center-in-the-middle class, not even at the true upper-middle class, since the upper-middle is the level of affluence the great mass of Americans sees as realistically accessible, and hence worth striving for. As other commentors have noted, the vast majority of us don't really grasp the true upper class, whether it's the 'old money' types with their opaque mores and family connections, or the made-it-big types (e.g. computer geeks who scored big) who are too eccentric and 'out of sight' (e.g. private planes) to feel any real connection to, or even envy of. Business class flying is therefore the sine qua non of the upper middle experience, but since most people flying it (at least those who do so infrequently enough to pay any attention to the menus) are really just middle class or below, the proper show must be put on!

Fussell's book is a bit dated, but only a bit, and I would highly recommend it. It's just hilarious, although Dwight's right about Fussell losing it at the end with his description of a 'Class X', which now reads like an eerie premonition of David Brooks's Bobos.

The upshot is, we're all a mess when it comes to status!

Oh, and lest I sound like a spoiled upper-middle myself, my experience with business class is almost entirely through longing to be in it. I'm very tall, and economy seating is like a cell of little ease for me. To add to the fun, I live in Hong Kong. My wife, daughter and I have made three trips back and forth to the USA in the past three years since my daughter was born (20 hour itineraries, two changes), all in economy, and it's a living hell!

Posted by: mr tall on March 7, 2006 08:43 PM

PS: Woodford Reserve tastes great and DOES have the best bottles.

Posted by: john massengale on March 8, 2006 12:54 AM

D.D. and Mr. Tall are right about Fuessell - a great writer about class aspects most Americans (and others) don't enjoy talking about, like who actually fights our wars, even in the era of the draft - there's a class angle in his famous essay "Thank God for the Atom Bomb" where he points out that most of those who condemned the atom bombing of Japan were people far divorced socially from the infantrymen and Marines who might actually have had to invade Japan - he particularly skewers John Kenneth Galbraith on this point. (Most upper class types gravitated toward Intelligence in WWII- the initials of the O.S.S, the precursor of the CIA, were said to stand for "Oh, So Social"). But yeah, Fussell's blather about "Class X" is just insufferable - it's sort of a neo-Marxian "But of course, intellectuals and academics aren't affected by this class and status nonsense" statement, which is hilarious - I work at a university, and academics are probably the most class-and-status oriented people imaginable.

Fussell's still worth reading, though...

Posted by: tschafer on March 8, 2006 10:25 AM

In regards to your point about capitalization on 'haute' menus, I've noticed that now that higher-end restaurants are abandoning the classical French terminology, their menus now feature bizarre exercises like this:

Pancetta, Fresh Potato Gnocchi, Bright Lights Swiss Chard, Slow Poached King Eryngii Mushrooms, Lemon-Truffle Butter and A Surprise

(I love the 'A Surprise' part.) When the menu items are in the classical French, they seem (in memory at least) to go more like this:

Mille-feuille de foie gras mi-cuit et pain d'épices maison, purée de dattes moulée à la cuillère.

No or very few caps, even if the item is translated into English. For some reason, this phenomenon reminds me of your earlier post about the use of bizarre symbols in logos and advertising, like the use of square brackets [] in yellow tail wine . Capitalization now seems entirely a means of marketing or branding or setting a kind of mood. It's original purpose seems increasingly to be deserting it.

Posted by: PatrickH on March 8, 2006 06:32 PM

I am mortified by my use of "It's" to denote the possessive. "Its".


Posted by: PatrickH on March 8, 2006 06:36 PM

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