I was shocked to discover that the business class upgrade one of my Israel pilgrims wanted was going to cost over $5000. The upgrade cost more than the pilgrimage itself. But that was before I caught up with how the airlines are embodying the yawning gap between the wealthy and the rest of us.
Up in Business or First Class space abounds, great meals (or as great as they can get on an airplane) are served, and private compartments are available on some flights for more than $5000. Back in Economy, what a New York Times article recently called “the new steerage” the seats are crowded together and it’s often “fee for service” all the way, even for a bottle of water. That’s in addition to paying extra on top of your ticket price to check a bag. Frontier Airlines even charges a fee for you to store your carry-on in the overhead bins.
Of course, all this used to be included in the ticket fee, but then you got treated as a person. Now it’s overtly nickel-and-dime, or rather five-ten-twenty-fifty or more dollars all the way. Fee for service: the monetizing and commodifying of everything, and the disappearance of even the semblance of hospitality—unless, of course, you pay that $5000 extra for Business Class. Up there you get treated like a guest—something that, once upon a time, prevailed to some degree throughout the plane.
The "Sodom Syndrome"
The rabbinical legends that about the economic practices of Sodom and Gomorrah continue to illuminate, for me, the moral quality of societies in which such rapacious and feral marketplace customs replace the more humane customs of mutuality that treat people as souls rather than mere economic integers: the “Sodom syndrome.” I mentioned an ancient rabbinical joke too complex to relate in a recent blog about the sin cities, and got requests to relate it. This fee-for-service howl is a perfect venue, so here it is. The joke is a grim one:
Eliezar, Abraham's servant, goes to visit Lot's family in Sodom. A bystander hits Eliezar on the forehead with a rock till it bleeds because he gave alms to a beggar, contrary to the city's economic code. The assailant then demands that Eliezar pay him for the "service of (medical) bloodletting." Eliezar refuses, saying he was the victim. The Sodomite hauls him into court to make him pay, and the judge declares the assailant deserves payment for the medical service. Eliezar pulls a rock out of his robe, hits the judge on the forehead, causing blood to flow, then says, "Now you owe me a fee for my medical service. Use what you would have paid me to compensate my assailant."
In the ancient near East, commerce was often surrounded by hospitality. The shopkeeper wanted to drive a hard bargain, as did the customer, but it took place after sipping tea and having pleasant conversation, and there was a fairly set style of courteous conversation, even as buyer and seller tried to gain the advantage. All of this had, apparently, disappeared in Sodom and Gomorrah, and the rabbis use their tales and jokes to condemn such a soul-less, inhumane marketplace. When profit is God, soul shrivels.
And steerage passengers pay for the privilege of carrying luggage.