Flying over the Titanic

I’m writing this 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, flying from London to Texas, following an aerial path which I guess issn’t too far off the nautical course which Titanic took 105 years ago.

I’ve been in the UK for the past 10 days visiting family and some universities with my youngest son. We started with Cambridge and made our way north to Leeds, before heading south to the port city of Southampton, where the Titanic set sail from for New York in 1912.

Southampton is still a port city but the main cargo being shipped out these days seems to be Range Rovers versus the huddled masses yearning to be free. The city does, however, have a nice, albeit small, Titanic exhibition. The exhibition documents the names, and many of the faces, of the 2,000 plus passengers, of whom only 700 survived. The exhibition also presented the opulence with which the Titanic’s first class passengers traveled, compared to the third class passengers. And on reflection, I can’t say much has really changed over the past 100 years. Special menus, fancy cutlery, ice cream and international communications (via Morse code as opposed to WhatsApp) were all part of first class on the Titantic.

I was interested to learn that the cost of sending a 10-word telegram, for example to simply send greetings to loved ones or make a hotel booking, cost about the same as was earned by a ship steward during the 10-day journey. And a number of such messages were sent by first-class passengers from the ship’s communication room before the liner sank.

Airlines, cruise ships and even trains have had different classes of travel for years, but in my experience, the gap in level of service, has increased over the past 25 years, at least since I’ve been paying attention. My earlier recollections of first class were gleaned from my occasional glimpse behind the magic curtain, when I saw that first class passengers had better food and drinks and bigger seats. But I don’t remember nearly as many first or premium class travelers as there are these days. My teenage children have even flown business class, something I didn’t do until I was at least 30.

And when you consider flat-bed seats and private suites offered by the likes of Singapore Airlines and some Gulf carriers, that’s a level of luxury unheard of 20 years ago, unless you were flying in your own plane.

My point is that the top rung of developed nation societies has, in the course of my lifetime, increased in size as well as well as in wealth. And it’s not just my personal observations from flying which support this view.

Throughout history, there comes a time when the lower class simply won’t tolerate the growing wealth gap. Civil unrest and/or war generally break out and the income gap gets reset, only to then repeat itself once again in a different form and time and place.

The first World War broke out two years after the Titanic sank, taking with it a mix of first, second and third class passengers and crew. I believe we may approaching another era of global turmoil caused at least in part by the growing gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” (or maybe better re-characterized today as the “have-too-muches” and the “have-a-whole-lot-less-than-the-have-too-muches”).

The issue of this growing divide was set out in a recent New York Times op-ed about the falicy of the American “class-less” society. The op-ed makes the point that the so-called “upper middle class” (those earning over $200k per year, a group which makes up roughly 20% of the US population), along with the super-rich “1%”, have seen a disproportionate increase in wealth accumulation versus the remaining 80% over the past 40 years.

Today I’m flying in United Airlines’ “economy plus”, which I suppose is the equivalent of 2nd class on the Titanic. United has only one first class cabin, which they now for some reason call “Polaris”, perhaps as an attempt to put less accent on the word “class” and, in their own way, help keep the peace.

I will confess that sometimes I will pay the extra cost to fly business class (likely a sign of being in the “have-too-much” class), and other times I manage to swing an upgrade using miles. But on many flights, like today, I’ll slog it out in economy.

If I’m honest, it’s a boost to my ego, and even a bit addictive, for me to fly in the front of the plane, so from that standpoint sitting in economy is good medicine and helps me keep my ego in check. But who knows, maybe it’s also my subconscious attempt at showing neutrality in preparation for the next bout of class-driven turbulence. I’m the first to admit that I can be an elitist, but if civil unrest unfolds in the years ahead I want to end up on the winning side.

Let me know what you think about the possibility of the an event-driven global crisis that will upend the current social order.

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