When I was a kid, people talked about the jet set: the ability to fly when and where you pleased was an obvious class marker. But by the end of the '60s, the middle classes flew more often, and "jet set" had fallen out of fashion, as if a Henry Ford of flight had given air travel to the people.
My first clue that wasn't so came in the late '70s, when I flew from New York City to visit my parents. I had a stopover in Toronto, and I felt uncomfortable there. I wondered if it was because the airport seemed like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. When I boarded, I got my answer. A First Nations family came into the cabin, and something in the attitudes of other passengers changed. Everyone I had seen in the airport until then had been white and, to use a class euphemism, "well-dressed". The Indian family, with brown skin and blue jeans, was neither.
I can't remember when I first heard one of America's great snob terms, flyover country. But I eventually realized it was the perfect metaphor for how the rich deal with us: they fly over us. In the last decade, I learned about how much pollution they crap on us as they fly over. That metaphor only improved when I lived in Bisbee and had the chance to see buzzard shit on my car.
A friend on G+ objected to my referring to "the flying class", so I did a cursory google. The links are British, but once you look past the nobility, their class system and the US's are remarkably similar, right down to social mobility.
Who Flies? Who Pays?: "Only about five percent of the world population has ever flown. This minority, which flies more and more often, lives mostly in industrialized countries. The consequences of climate change, however, primarily affect those who have contributed little to it, i.e. people in developing countries."
George Monbiot, Heat - Extract and Comments | JustEarth: "Monbiot dismisses the argument that cheap flights are “socially inclusive,” enabling poorer people to fly, pointing out that people in the lowest two social classes take only 6% of cheap flights, as they can’t afford even them, that 75% of those who use budget airlines are in the top three social classes (p. 177). People with secondary residences take an average of six return flights a year to use them. Those who are the “most vulnerable to climate change are the poorest inhabitants of the poorest nations, the great majority of whom will never board an aeroplane” (p. 178)."
STOP the Expansion of Exeter Airport - The Case Against:
The air travel industry often argues that cheap air travel stops the elitist situation in the past where only the rich enjoyed the privilege of flying. Interestingly recent trends show that air travel remains the preserve of the wealthy.Plane Stupid - 10 reasons to ground jet air travel: "It’s the rich who are really benefiting from the artificially low prices of air travel. The average income of people using Stansted Airport is £47,000 per year – and it’s supposed to be a budget airport! Low-skilled people and people on benefits, despite making up a quarter of the population, only took 6% of the flights whilst the top quarter of the population took almost half of all flights. (Civil Aviation Authority) Indeed, 75% of those who use budget airlines are in social classes A, B and C with people with second homes abroad taking an average of six return flights a year. Most of the growth, the government envisages, will take place among the wealthiest 10%. (Monbiot, The Guardian, 28.02.06)"
It’s still the case that the overwhelming majority of people that fly come from the higher socio-economic groups. Indeed the growth of air travel has widened inequalities between income and social groups and not narrowed them.
Even research by the aviation industry’s own lobby group; "Freedom to Fly" has shown that people in the top three social classes fly four times as often as those in the three lower classes. Even on budget airlines, people from the top three social classes account for more than 75% of passengers.
Figures from the Civil Aviation Authority, published in 2004 reinforce these trends. Those in social groups D and E (27% of the population) took only 6% of flights in 2003.
Easyjet themselves have confirmed that the rapid growth in budget airlines is being fuelled by people with very high disposable incomes who book dozens of trips a year: "We have at least 1,000 people who fly every week from London to their second homes in Nice, Malaga, Palma and Barcelona", a spokesman said, "There is a misconception that budget airlines are used mainly by people on lower incomes. If you look in the airport car parks you will find them full of BMWs and Mercedes."
Air travel is still a luxury only enjoyed by the privileged elite.