Traveling during the holidays is always an interesting experience. There usually isn’t a lot of time to observe “airport culture” as it is often neglected due to the rush associated of traveling.
However, a 12-hour layover provided me with a lot of time to think about the politics of airports this winter break.
Airports vary according to their geographical locations, but they all have several similar characteristics. They are places of anti-structure, but also areas that reinforce stereotypes.
Even though travelling by air has increased over time and has become more accessible to people from different economic strata, it is still regarded as a privileged activity, reserved only for those who have more resources.
Personally, one of the issues that always seems to bother me is the distinction between first class and economy class. Even though in current times, the more politically correct “business” or “executive” term is used, the same contradictions are in place.
It is true that those flying in the business class pay a higher fare to have special services. However, it goes beyond just paying for a better seat, more sophisticated food and drinks, or overall better service.
I often wonder if those in the business class choose to pay more because they desire better service, or simply because it is expected they do so due to their economic status.
Is the distinction between business and economy class a socio-political one? The use of the term “class” belongs to another time, when people were judged and treated based on their material belongings.
The politics of airplanes seem to follow this outdated practice. People cannot be separated into classes anymore; there are a number of factors to consider, such as one’s geographical location, religious and political beliefs, and also professional and intellectual interests.
As a result, a person now may possess the human capital that was reserved only for the higher classes in the past.
The class distinction also follows you from the airplane to the airport, where you find economy areas and VIP or private club rooms. This isn’t surprising. One of the principal characteristics of capitalism is exclusivity. Exclusivity allows companies to charge more since they often appeal to the human desire for uniqueness and standing out.
Of course, it depends on the airport, but those VIP rooms are often equipped with diverse services such as spas or free drinks and food. On the other hand, many of us economy class travellers have had to deal with cancellations or layovers by sleeping on the floor and consuming the cheapest fast food available in the airport.
One of the positive changes seen in airports today are the flight attendants. In the past, only certain type of women were chosen to serve passengers. In recent years, many more men have also filled the position, which speaks to gender equity.
More and more women are also becoming flight captains, a significant move in the right direction, taking into account the fact that it was an occupation reserved mostly for men in the past. There is evidence here of moving against the restriction and stigmatization of women being able to only occupy lower positions.
So, even though airports reflect society’s differentiation of people and their corresponding classifications, they also represent a space of anti-structure. Anti-structure, following Victor Turner’s definition, is a place where society’s social norms are suspended, and the individual renegotiates their identity.
Airports are in-between places, and the more time you spend in them, the more your identity is challenged. You are exposed to people from all corners of the world and their respective perspectives, but, even more importantly, you are challenged to reflect upon what you’ve left behind and what you’re going to encounter.