D.L. STEWART: ‘Last class’ creates plenty more room for concern

Boarding an airplane is traumatic for me. It has nothing to do with a fear of flying. I’ve managed to put that in the back of my mind, although any time there are 10 or more consecutive seconds of turbulence it vaults to the front of my mind.

My concern is walking through the first class or business section and looking down on the passengers already seated and sipping their free drinks. I always get the feeling, irrational as it may be, that they're looking down on me for being poorer or cheaper than they are.

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And now there’s another concern to add to my in-flight envy. Because airlines recently have created a new socioeconomic level for passengers who don’t have platinum credits cards or enough frequent flyer miles to qualify for elite status. They’re calling it “basic economy.” Which is just their way of saying “last class.”

Basic economy passengers will be wedged into seats in the main cabin along with the other poor folks. The difference is they will not be allowed to carry on items that can’t be stored under the seat in front of them and won’t have access to the overhead bins. They will not be able to reserve a seat. They also won’t be eligible for upgrades, refunds or flight changes. It is, in other words, the 21st century equivalent of steerage.

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I’ve tried putting a positive spin on all that. I tell myself it saves me from the challenge of seeing how much I can cram into my suitcase so I can stuff it into the overhead bin and avoid paying the fee for checking it. And I won’t have to waste time deciding what seat to select, which compensates for the fact that the seat the airline will assign me probably will be between two passengers built like NFL linebackers or in an aromatic row immediately in front of the lavatories in a seat that may or may not recline.

I can live with all that. But there’s one other concern: basic economy passengers will be in the last boarding group. Which means not just walking past those smug people in first class or business class. It also means being confronted by previously boarded passengers in the main cabin, glaring in a silent warning not to even think of taking the empty seat next to them.

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All of those concerns were in my mind as I searched for a flight to Charlotte next month. My options were first class for $561, main cabin for $361 or basic economy for $311. I picked main cabin.

Sure, it was $50 more. But at least I'll get to look down on somebody.

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