Meanwhile, ordinary experiences deteriorate in quality, and the motivation to pay more for an upgrade and better treatment becomes more urgent, even for Americans who don’t consider themselves part of the elite.
The political and social repercussions go beyond symbolism — they have a real impact on government policies and fiscal priorities. For instance, when corporate decision makers, members of Congress and especially the political donor class routinely bypass traffic jams and deteriorating trains and buses and get to the airport via a luxury helicopter service like Blade, the political impetus to improve public transit fades.
The ease of catching a commercial flight at the deluxe new private terminal at Los Angeles International Airport — the first of its kind in the country, with a $4,500 annual membership plus a $3,000 fee per trip — makes it that much easier for those who can afford it to forget about the decrepit main terminal, with its claustrophobic hallways and overcrowded waiting areas.
Similarly, if wealthier consumers can hack the hospital game and see specialists before everyone else, or employ high-priced counselors to gain special access to the Ivy League, health care and education reform become much less pressing.
Nowhere is the segmentation worse, or anger more evident, than up in the air. With nine different groups to board a plane, flying has explicitly become an exercise in class distinction. The frustration isn’t confined to rhetoric. A 2016 study on air rage by Katherine A. DeCelles of the University of Toronto and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School found a surprisingly robust link between onboard incidents and what they call “physical and situational inequality.”
What the researchers discovered as they sifted through the data was remarkable. When passengers boarded at the front of the aircraft and had to walk through the premium cabin to get to coach, the odds of an outburst in economy doubled. Nor was the anger limited to the back of the plane. On those flights where coach passengers traipsed their way through first class upon boarding, unruly behavior among elite passengers was nearly 12 times as likely.
The extremely rich don’t see even first-class fliers, let alone those in coach. Take Nick Hanauer, a Seattle entrepreneur worth hundreds of millions of dollars. As an early investor in Amazon, Mr. Hanauer gets around in his personal Dassault Falcon 900LX jet, which retails for $43 million. Money provides him with a kind of all-encompassing E-ZPass, enabling him to zip past the everyday obstacles the rest of us have to contend with.